Making literacy everybody’s business

by Andreas Schleicher

Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

While poor literacy skills severely limit people’s access to better-paying and more rewarding jobs, data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills also shows that individuals with poor literacy skills are far more likely than those with advanced literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities.

Ensuring that all people have solid foundation skills has become one of the central aims of the post-2015 development agenda. This is not just about providing more people with more years of schooling; in fact, that’s only the first step. It is most critically about making sure that individuals acquire solid knowledge in key disciplines, that they develop creative, critical thinking and collaborative skills, and that they build character attributes, such as mindfulness, curiosity, courage and resilience. All of that builds on literacy. Leaders for Literacy Day is a good time to remind ourselves where we stand and how much more progress is needed.

Among 80 countries with comparable data, Ghana has the lowest enrolment rate in secondary schools (46%) and also the lowest achievement levels among those 15-year-olds who are in school (291 PISA points, on average). While it is difficult for Ghana to meet the goal of universal basic skills for its 15-year-olds any time soon, if it did, it would see a gain over the lifetime of children born today that, in present value terms, is 38 times its current GDP. This is equivalent of tripling Ghana’s discounted future GDP every four years during the working life of those students with improved skills.

One might be tempted to think that high-income countries have all the means to eliminate extreme underperformance in education; but the data show otherwise. For example, 24% of 15-year-olds in the United States cannot complete even basic Level 1 PISA tasks. The fact that the 10% most disadvantaged children in Shanghai outperform the 10% most advantaged children in parts of Europe and the United States reminds us that poverty isn’t destiny. If the United States were to ensure that all of its students meet the goal of universal basic skills, the economic gains could reach over USD 27 trillion in additional income for the American economy over the working life of these students.

But can countries really improve their populations’ literacy quickly? PISA shows that top performers in education, such as Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, and Singapore, were able to further extend their lead in literacy skills over the past few years; and countries like Peru, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates achieved major improvements from previously low levels of literacy performance. Even those who claim that student performance mainly reflects social and cultural factors must concede that improvements in education are possible. A culture of education isn’t just inherited, it is created by what we do.

So what we can learn from the world’s education leaders? The first lesson from PISA is that the leaders in high-performing school systems seem to have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education more than other things. Chinese parents and grandparents tend to invest their last renminbi in their children’s education. By contrast, in much of Europe and North America, governments have started to borrow the money of their children to finance their consumption today. The debt they have incurred puts a brake on economic and social progress.

But valuing education is just part of the equation. Another part is believing in the success of every child. Top school systems expect every child to achieve and accept no excuse for failure. They realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents, and they embrace diversity with differentiated instructional practices.

And nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems pay attention to how they select and train their staff. They attract the right talent and they work to improve the performance of struggling teachers.

High performers have also adopted professional forms of work organisation in their schools. They encourage their teachers to use innovative pedagogies, improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and work together to define good practice. They grow and distribute leadership throughout the school system.

Perhaps most impressive, school systems as diverse as those in Finland and Shanghai attract the strongest principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms so that every student benefits from excellent teaching and school leadership.

But it is far too easy to assign the task of improving literacy skills just to schools. When formal schooling begins, many parents believe that their role as educators has ended. But literacy is a shared responsibility of parents, schools, teachers and other members of society. Results from PISA offer comfort to parents who are concerned that they don’t have enough time or the requisite academic knowledge to help their children succeed in school. The simple question, “How was school, today?”, asked by parents the world over has as great an impact on children’s literacy skills as  a family’s wealth. PISA results show that reading to children when they are very young is strongly related to how well those children read and how much they enjoy reading later on. In short, many types of parental involvement that are associated with better literacy skills require relatively little time and no specialised knowledge. What counts is genuine interest and active engagement.

Read more:
Adult Skills in Focus No. 2: What does low proficiency in literacy really mean? by Miloš Kankaraš
Les Compétences des Adultes á la loupe No. 2: Qu’entend-on réellement par faibles compétences en littératie ?
Education Working Paper No. 131: Adults with Low Proficiency in Literacy or Numeracy
OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
International Literacy Association

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