What do high-performing school systems have in common? OECD guru summarises PISA findings.

Janet Downs's picture
The three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) doesn’t just test pupils’ ability to use the knowledge they have in novel situations. The programme provides a wealth of data which can inform education policy, said Andreas Schleicher* during a recent lecture.

PISA found that the most successful school systems tend to be those which are most equitable. These systems don’t just concentrate on excellence for some but provide excellence for all. This, Schleicher said, challenged those systems which think their purpose is to “sort people”.

There isn’t a correlation between the wealth of a country and how successful its education system is. It’s how money is spent that is important. This can be, as in Korea, paying teachers more and investing in continual professional development (pushing costs up) while expecting them to teach larger classes (pushing costs down).

In Germany, after the PISA “shock” of 2000 when the country did poorly in PISA tests, investment in Germany’s education system increased. But this wasn’t all, Schleicher said. Data from PISA showed the importance of early years education which in Germany had traditionally been left to families. Now, the early years are at the centre of education policy. Similarly, PISA data is challenging another German tradition – that of separating children at age 10 into academic and vocational streams.

What can we learn from countries that have high levels of equity and high levels of performance? Schleicher asked. Education systems can’t be just copied-and-pasted but there are shared factors:

• They put a high value on education. Every country says it values education. That’s the theory, but what happens in practice? How much are teachers paid? What is their status? How do the media talk about teachers and schools?

• Successful countries accept that all pupils can succeed if they are given the opportunity and they put in the effort. Successful countries don’t divide pupils up at an early age.

• Teachers in successful countries employ a range of teaching practices to personalise learning opportunities. And pupils know what’s expected in order to succeed.

• Successful countries value teachers. They are careful how they recruit and train them; they provide continual professional development and they seek ways of improving the performance of weak teachers. In short, they provide an environment in which teachers can collaborate and share best practice.

• High performing systems set high standards and enable teachers to decide how best to teach their own pupils.  High performing school systems allow teachers to be inventive.

• High performers have moved from “professional or administrative forms of accountability and control” to “professional forms of work organisations”. Standardization and compliance belong to the past, Schleicher said. In the past, the emphasis was on outcomes – in high-performing systems the emphasis is on the next stage in a pupil’s education: the next teacher, the next school, the pupil’s future life.

• In successful countries there is high performance across the entire system. Resources are directed where they are most needed. The most talented teachers teach the most challenging classes and the strongest heads lead the toughest schools.

• Lastly, education policy is aligned with other public policies – they are coherent, sustained and consistently implemented.

Few of the above factors are present in England. The Sutton Trust recently advised that the Government tackle England’s segregated school system instead of focussing on structures while the Academies Commission says that the emphasis on structural change and the avalanche of Government initiatives is drawing attention away from the fundamentally important part of teaching – what happens in the classroom.

*Andreas Schleicher is deputy director for education and special adviser on education policy to the secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Thanks to Rosie Fergusson for drawing my attention to the recording and transcript of Schleicher’s speech.

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