OECD Observer
Lessons from PISA outcomes

In a global economy, the benchmark for educational success is no longer improvement by national standards alone, but the best performing school systems internationally. Latest results from the PISA assessment, the world’s metric for evaluating learning outcomes at school, issued 3 December, show striking changes in the world’s talent. 

Shanghai-China, already the top-performing education system in 2009, has extended its lead in students’ math performance over the next highest performer, Singapore, to the equivalent of a full school year. And that was at a time when Singapore, too, saw rapid progress. Other East Asian systems, including Chinese Taipei and Japan, also saw improved results, as did Europe, in Germany and Poland for instance, and Latin America, such as Brazil and Mexico. PISA was conducted in 2012, a year when many of the 65 participating countries were still grappling with the economic crisis that has brought home the urgency of equipping more people with better skills to collaborate, compete and connect in ways that drive economies forward.

Some contend that Shanghai’s success in PISA just reflects rote learning and immense drilling for tests. But the most impressive performance of Shanghai’s students is actually not on the tasks that ask them to simply reproduce what they have learned, but on tasks where they need to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge creatively in novel situations. Consider this: only 2% of American students can conceptualise, generalise and use advanced math in creative ways, which is what the highest performance level in PISA requires. In Shanghai it is over 30%. Shanghai has understood that the world economy will pay an ever-rising premium on excellence, and that today’s economy no longer rewards people simply for what they know –Google knows everything– but for what they can do with what they know.

Obviously, one can’t copy and paste school systems wholesale. But PISA has revealed a surprising number of features which the world’s most successful school systems share and from which others can learn.

For example, students in high-performing countries consistently say that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, which suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education. High-performers embrace diversity among students with differentiated instructional practices, their teachers have high expectations for every student and realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents. Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. High performers pay great attention to how they select and train their staff. And when deciding where to invest, they prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes.

Not least, they provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers and have moved on from bureaucratic control and accountability to professional forms of work organisation. They support their teachers to make innovations in pedagogy, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to pursue professional development that leads to stronger educational practice. Often in education, the policy focus is still on the provision of education, in top school systems it’s on outcomes, which means shifting from looking upwards in the bureaucracy towards looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school, about creating networks of innovation. And the most impressive outcome of world class school systems is perhaps that they deliver high quality across the entire school system so that every student benefits from excellent learning. They align policies and practices effectively across all aspects of the system, they maintain coherencee over sustained periods of time, and they see that they are consistently implemented.


See www.oecd.org/pisa/

Read also “Education for all”, by Andreas Schleicher,  OECD Yearbook 2013, http://www.oecd.org/forum/education-for-all.htm

©OECD Observer No 297 Q4 2013