There’s no magic bullet to raising educational performance, says EIU report

Janet Downs's picture
Number-crunching by the EIU found that when results of three international tests PISA (reading, maths, science), TIMSS (maths, science) and PIRLS (reading) were combined with literacy and graduation rates the UK came sixth in the world. The report, however, is more than a database – it tries to discover the elusive qualities of high-performing school systems.

The two countries listed first, South Korea and Finland, are very different. South Korea is characterised by high expectations and pressure while Finland’s egalitarian system is more relaxed. But both of these have a downside: South Korean teenagers are the unhappiest in OECD* countries while Finland’s system appears less effective in stretching the most able.

The report listed five lessons for education policymakers:

1 There are no magic bullets.

2 Teachers should be treated as valued professionals.

3 Money invested is important, but a supportive culture may matter more.

4 Education systems should work with parents and keep them informed. Parental pressure for change should not be seen as opposition but neither should parental input and choice be viewed as a solution.

5 Education systems should consider the future skills their pupils will need and teach accordingly.

Money brings advantages both for countries and individuals but the link between wealth and educational results is complex, the report found. But education systems with a commitment to equity can reduce the connection between disadvantage and educational results.

The report concluded that general lessons could be learned: high-performing school systems tended to have “high standards, solid curriculum, competent teachers and a supportive culture that is education-minded.” It also tentatively suggested that “other research might point to the importance of school choice and school autonomy.”

The OECD* found a strong link between educational outcomes and autonomy (see faqs). However, the link between school choice and performance is inconclusive (see faqs). And top-performing Finland has little school choice. It’s odd, then, that this report, which included a warning against regarding parental choice as a “panacea”, should nevertheless suggest that allowing school choice has a bearing on results. Citing PISA 2003, the report said the share of privately-managed schools had “an economically and statistically significant positive effect on student achievement”. But the evidence didn’t come from PISA. It appeared in an academic paper co-authored by Ludger Woessmann, one of the interviewees who contributed to the EIU report, which considered only 29 of the 40 countries that took part in PISA 2003 in the light of Catholic “resistance” to state education. What PISA 2003 actually said was:

“…these [international] comparisons show that the association between a school being private and its students doing well is at best tenuous. Thus, any policy to enhance overall performance only by moving funding from public to private institutions is subject to considerable uncertainty.”

This conclusion was upheld in PISA 2009 which found that public (ie state funded and managed) schools did better than privately-managed ones when socio-economic background is taken into account.

It’s disappointing that the EIU didn’t look at PISA directly. In a footnote, Pearson, the report’s publisher, declares an interest in a chain of schools founded by another interviewee who whose work was described in the report. It’s to be hoped that this involvement didn’t unduly sway the authors towards a particular point of view. This is a blip in an otherwise carefully-considered paper.

*Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

Correction (2 December 2012): My statement that Ludger Woessmann co-authored the EIU report was incorrect.  He had been interviewed by the authors and quoted by them but he was not one of the authors.  I also wrote that Pearson had an interest in a chain of schools established by one of the authors of the report.  Again, this was incorrect.  Pearson's connection was with an interviewee whose work was described in the report.  The interviewee was not one of the authors.  I am happy to set the record straight.

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