All that money can’t buy

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education 

We can now add something else to the growing list of things money alone can’t buy: love, happiness–and strong performance in PISA. Results from PISA 2009 show that there is a threshold beyond which a country’s wealth is unrelated to its overall score in PISA.

Among moderately wealthy economies whose per capita GDP is up to around USD 20 000 (Estonia, Hungary, the Slovak Republic and the partner country Croatia, for example), the greater the country’s wealth, the higher its mean score on the
PISA reading test. But PISA results indicate that above this threshold of USD 20 000 in per capita GDP, national wealth is no longer a good predictor of a country’s mean performance in PISA. And the amount these high-income countries devote to education also appears to have little relation to their overall performance in PISA. PISA looked at cumulative expenditure on education–the total dollar amount spent on educating a student from the age of 6 to the age of 15–and found that, after a threshold of about USD 35 000 per student, expenditure is unrelated to performance. For example, countries that spend more than USD 100 000 per student from the age of 6 to 15, such as Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and the United States, show similar levels of performance as countries that spend less than half that amount per student, such as Estonia, Hungary and Poland. Meanwhile, New Zealand, a top performer in PISA, spends a lower-than-average amount per student from the age of 6 to 15.

So what is it that makes a country a strong performer in PISA? Its decisions on how it spends the money that it does invest in education. PISA results show that the strongest performers among high-income countries and economies tend to invest more in teachers. For example, lower secondary teachers in Korea and the partner economy of Hong Kong-China, two high-performing systems in the PISA reading tests, earn more than twice the per capita GDP in their respective countries. The countries that perform well in PISA tend to attract the best students into the teaching profession by offering them higher salaries and greater professional status. They also tend to prioritise investment in teachers over smaller classes.

Successful PISA countries also invest something else in their education systems: high expectations for all of their students. Schools and teachers in these systems do not allow struggling students to fail; they do not make them repeat a grade, they do not transfer them to other schools, nor do they group students into different classes based on ability. Regardless of a country’s or economy’s wealth, school systems that commit themselves, both in resources and in policies, to ensuring that all students succeed perform better in PISA than systems that tend to separate out poor performers or students with behavioural problems or special needs.

So when it comes to money and education, the question isn’t how much? but rather for what?

For more information:
on PISA:
PISA in Focus N°13: Does money buy strong performance in PISA?
Full set of PISA in Focus:
Video Series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

Video: Singapore: Building a strong and effective teaching force
From the series of videos on Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, produced jointly by the OECD and the Pearson Foundation

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