PISA for Development

by Erik Solheim
Chair of the Development Assistance Committee, Development Co-operation Directorate

PISA for Development, launched on the 27th of March 2015 in Guatemala, provides an opportunity to improve the quality of education in Guatemala and throughout the developing world. Participation in PISA will help Guatemala benchmark its educational system and support the government efforts to improve education at all levels, particularly for the most disadvantaged and the large indigenous population of the country. PISA for Development also aims to identify ways to better measure, benchmark and improve education in developing countries.

Extreme poverty has been halved in two decades, and the world is now richer, better educated and more peaceful than at any other point in human history. More than 9 out of 10 children, and almost as many girls as boys, now go to school. Guatemala has made great strides in the last few years. Participation in primary education increased from 86% in 2001 to 93% in 2011, above the world average. But we must get to 10 and make sure that children learn more.

Enrolling all children, keeping them in school and providing a good education is essential for development. The education a country has today is the economy it will have tomorrow. All the great success stories in recent times have put education at the core of development. South Korea went from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest, by focusing on education and industrialisation. Young Koreans are now 390 times richer than their grandparents were. Korean 15-year olds perform better in school than any other OECD nations.

Leadership is important. The founder of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, emphasised the importance of education during his entire life, and the results are now visible. In Guatemala, Minister of Education del Aguila has been a champion for PISA and education reform. A former teacher, Minister del Aguila combines real experience in education with political leadership.

Huge strides have been made in securing basic education for all. Nevertheless, children are not learning enough at school. Too many students still drop out before high school or university. Shortage of skilled labour is a big problem in many developing countries. The quality of education will be a central aspect of the new United Nations sustainable development goals, which will be agreed upon later this year. The OECD has launched PISA for Development as a contribution to improve the quality of education all over the globe. Since 1997, PISA has been the leading reference on the quality of education systems worldwide. The “PISA-shock”, or the understanding that you have a lot to learn from others, has inspired many countries to reconsider policies and improve their education systems. Now the time has come to take this success to a global level and work towards better quality education for all.

The OECD has partnered with Zambia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Cambodia, Senegal and Guatemala to identify how PISA can better measure the quality of education in developing countries. The PISA test instruments will need to be adjusted to account for bigger differences between the highest and lowest performing students. New methods must be tested to evaluate students that are not attending formal schooling. We hope that these efforts will enable more countries to use PISA to set national learning policies and monitor progress.

Monitoring and evaluation is crucial for improving education. PISA is a powerful tool because it gives countries an honest assessment of whether their students are on the right track. Brazil has done more than any other PISA participant to improve its education system. Brazil was on the bottom of the ranking when it first participated in 2000. Then Brazil used PISA to prioritise policies and do focus more on what policies work better. Brazil improved the quality of its education system faster than any other nation over the next 10 years. The Bolsa Familia program, which provided cash remuneration to low-income families in exchange for enrolling children in school also contributed to improved education for the poorest children most likely to be out of school.

PISA opens up opportunities to allow us to learn from the best. Chinese and other East Asian students are the best performers in mathematics and science, and reading. The seven top spots on the PISA ranking are occupied by Asian countries and cities. There must be many things we can learn from Asian success stories, whether the secret is aspiring students, good teachers or better public policies. Guatemala and Peru is paired as part of a mentoring mechanism to provide peer-to-peer technical advice and learn from each other. Identifying policies that work and implementing these on a global scale is key for improving the quality of education.

Good policies are much more important than money.  Fifteen year old students in poor Vietnam are doing better than the average student in much richer countries. Only about 6% of performance differences in PISA test are explained by national income. Money is best used to underpin good policies.

Quality education is the way to development and poverty reduction. Monitoring progress, learning from success stories and implementing the best policies is the way to improve quality of education. Let the children learn!

PISA in Development
PISA 2012 Key Findings
Photo credit: © Roberto Franco Arias/Pedro Molina

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