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

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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Comments, replies and queries

  1. Their key architects did their PhDs in education in the UK just before we shut down types of practice they went home and implemented.

  2. Roger Titcombe says:

    Janet this is so important and so true. Not least the following.

    “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.”

    Or just the the next level of complexity as subject matter is explored, verbalised and discussed with peers and the teacher.

    In other words the approach is ‘developmental’. This is not the way the English system is going. In the marketised English system the emphasis is on high stakes outcomes. This results in shallow approaches that suit behaviourism (punishment and reward approaches at all levels in the system) – schools, teachers through performance related pay and competitive drill and practise teaching methods that work with shallow exams designed by privatised exam boards to feed schools’ needs for league table success.

    PISA questions are anything but shallow and capture developmental learning at the highest levels. This is why English pupils PISA performance is declining, while that of countries that promote the developmental learning described here is surging ahead.

    • Roger, I agree with everything you say until the final paragraph about the decline of English pupils’ performance in PISA (we’ve had this conversation before). It’s true that English pupils have declined relatively because (a) more countries entered for PISA in 2009 and (b) some countries upped their game. But if you look at the actual scores there was little significant statistical different between the scores of English pupils in 2006 and 2009 (2003 results were not reported because of sampling problems and 2000 results have since been found to be flawed).

      In any case, PISA results are contradicted by other international tests (see faq above “Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables?”). And the performance of English 14/15 year-olds in Science is consistently high in both PISA (above OECD average) and TIMSS*.

      That’s not to say that international tests are unimportant – they are. But their value lies not in relative league table positions (which can be misleading and open to misrepresentation) but in other data as outlined in the original post.

      The point I’m trying to make is that it’s unsound to underpin genuine concerns (which I share) with raw results from international tests when these results are contradictory.

      *Only five countries scored significantly more in Science in TIMSS 2011: Singapore, Chinese Tapei, Korea, Japan and Finland. Five countries performed at a similar level including Slovenia, Hong Kong and USA. The 31 countries which scored significantly lower than England included Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.

  3. Carla Brown says:

    This is a sample PISA question:

    from Arnold Jago:

    Did you know that in 1996 we spent almost the same amount on chocolate as our Government spent on overseas aid to help the poor?

    Could there be something wrong with our priorities?

    What are you going to do about it?

    Yes, you.

    Arnold Jago,

    Arnold Jago’s aim in the letter is to provoke

    (a) Guilt
    (b) Amusement
    (c) Fear

    Can any useful comparisons or conclusions really be drawn from something like this? Not only does it seem more suited to the developmental stage of an 8 year-old than a 15 year-old, but if a student was to get this wrong, I think it would be more likely because of a low IQ/learning difficulty than poor teaching at school. Yet PISA is used to compare whole school systems.

    • Roger Titcombe says:

      Carla – I am not with you on this. To judge the demand of this question you would have to look at the mark scheme. It could easily be a degree level question.

      • Roger Titcombe says:

        Carla – I withdraw previous comment! I confess I do not understand this question.

        • The marking guide is below:

          I don’t think I’d have scored very highly because I was amused by the blatant attempt by Jago to play on my conscience (all those leading rhetorical questions). Jago was obviously trying to induce guilt (correct answer) but it was so obvious it could have been a send-up (inducing amusement). And suppose I substituted baked beans, books, booze or burgers for “chocolate”, would Jago’s badgering have a different effect?

          I think I’d have got waylaid into discussing the efficacy of such blatant appeals that I would have missed the obvious answer. So I would either have been scored as “brilliant”, “bonkers” or “below functional literacy” because I wasted so much time on question one that I wouldn’t have done the more straightforward comprehension questions that followed.

  4. Roger Titcombe says:

    Janet – Have a look at TIMSS and PISA sample questions.

    For PISA, and download PISA 2009 key findings Volume 1. What students know and can do.
    Maths and Science samples start on pages 122 and 137

    For TIMSS select Grade 8 Released Items (bottom of page)

    I will return to this in a future post. I am not at all convinced that TIMSS tests higher levels at all. PISA certainly does.

  5. […] For example, when the PISA 2012 results were released, Janet Downs, of the Local Schools Network, arguedthat ‘PISA found that the most successful school systems tend to be those which are the most […]

  6. […] For example, when the PISA 2012 results were released, Janet Downs, of the Local Schools Network, arguedthat ‘PISA found that the most successful school systems tend to be those which are the most […]

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

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