What’s in children’s school bags?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Indicators and Analysis Division, Directorate for Education

The textbook in your or your child’s backpack: who decided it was the best one to use? And does it matter to your or your child’s success in school if that decision is taken by your school or by your government? The latest edition of PISA in Focus looks into how those issues relate to learning outcomes.

For example, school systems that grant individual schools autonomy in defining curricula, which can include determining which courses are offered, the content of those courses and the textbooks used to teach that material, tend to show better student performance overall, even after accounting for national income. Data from PISA 2009 show that the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the partner economy Macao-China grant their schools the greatest autonomy in these matters, while schools in Greece, Turkey and the partner countries Jordan and Tunisia have the least autonomy in these matters.

Within countries, though, the relationship isn’t as clear-cut, as school systems may grant individual schools more or less autonomy for a wide variety of reasons. So just because a school might have the responsibility of creating its own curriculum and choosing its own textbooks does not automatically mean that its students will perform better on PISA reading tests than students in a school that doesn’t.

A closer look at PISA results reveals another interesting twist in the school autonomy-student performance tale: while there is no clear relationship between autonomy in resource allocation (how a school raises and spends its money) and performance, there is a positive, albeit weak, relationship between the two in those school systems where most schools post student achievement data publicly. In these instances, it’s the combination of the school system’s accountability policies (in this case, having schools publicly disclose information about student performance) and school autonomy that is associated with slightly better student performance. Some 37% of students across OECD countries attend schools whose principals reported that they make achievement data available to the public; in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the partner countries Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, more than 80% of students attend schools that do so.

So while the analyses of PISA results can’t offer a simple equation, like school autonomy + accountability = better student outcomes, they can suggest the ways in which schools are governed, and the policies they put in practice, that are most strongly associated with better student performance. In effect, that textbook in your or your child’s backpack embodies a set of policies that could weigh a student down or help him or her soar.

For more on PISA, go to the website: http://www.pisa.oecd.org/

Photo credit: © Exactostock / SuperStock

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