Can OECD’s data guide the world towards better education systems?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

What do we have to do to ensure that all children and adults around the world get the best possible education? This question is important not only for individuals’ futures, but also for the fate of the planet. The outcomes of education will determine whether mankind will be able to face the many challenges ahead, from climate change to migration, from peace to economic growth and social progress. At the same time, the question is also tremendously difficult to answer. Historically, education systems have developed at different paces, under varying social, religious and cultural conditions. In a diverse and fragmented world, there are many definitions of “good education”.

Therefore, it is a small wonder that the world has been able to agree on a shared vision for the future of education by negotiating an ambitious goal for education as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), to be attained by 2030. Goal 4 of the SDGs aims to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Compared with previous attempts to set goals and standards for education, the new education SDG focuses more on the quality and equity of learning outcome than on participation. It also charts a clear path for growth and progress for education systems in so-called developed countries.

The education SDG does not prescribe how to achieve quality and equity; it simply asserts the rationale behind the goal: to ensure that all human beings have the knowledge and skills to thrive in life and contribute to their societies.

It is critically important that the education SDG and its component ten targets are now translated into real policies. The risk is that some countries will see the goal as a beautiful narrative that has nothing to do with them. The OECD has learned, from its long history of offering policy advice, that peer pressure is most persuasive when it is based on comparable data. Over the years, the OECD and other international organisations have built an impressive database on education; now is the time to use that data to monitor progress towards our common goal for education.

Today, the OECD publishes its 2016 edition of Education at a Glance, the most comprehensive collection of statistical data and indicators on education available. From this year’s edition onwards, Education at a Glance will provide a platform for measuring countries’ progress towards the education SDG. Even if the international community has not yet fully agreed on the standards and benchmarks for assessing achievement, countries can begin measuring their progress now, since data on many aspects of the goal and its targets are already available.

For OECD countries, the data are sobering. Of the 35 OECD countries for which relevant data are available, only 12 have attained at least half of the targets; many still have a long way to go.

Sometimes the lip service paid to improving quality and equity in education stands in sharp contrast to the reality, as shown by the data. At the same time, data should not only be used to “name and shame” countries; data also point to good examples and the many cases of excellent practice. They can reveal hidden treasures of successful policies and practices in education. This year’s Education at a Glance shows that only a handful of countries are on track on all targets towards the education SDG; but at the same time, it shows that all countries have excellent results on some of the targets. In other words, every country has something valuable to share with others. Through sharing best policies and best practices, identified through data, countries can move ever closer to attaining the ambitious goal that they have set for themselves. 

Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Regards sur l’éducation 2016: Les indicateurs de l’OCDE
Follow #OECDEAG 2016 on Twitter: @OECDEduSkills
Chart source: © OECD

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