Special Report
International Opinion

Elevating Performance in a ‘Flat World’

America’s international edge in student achievement is slipping, as other countries take education reform to heart.
By Andreas Schleicher — December 29, 2006 12 min read
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Andreas Schleicher

Individuals and countries that invest heavily in education benefit economically and socially from that choice. Moreover, among the 30 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries with the largest expansion of college education over the last decade, most still see rising earnings differentials for college graduates, suggesting that an increase in knowledge workers does not necessarily lead to a decrease in their pay, as is the case for low-skilled workers.

Skills are now a major factor driving economic growth and broader social outcomes, both in the world’s most advanced economies and in those experiencing rapid development. The long-term effect of one additional year of education on economic output in the OECD area ranges between 3 percent and 6 percent. Technological developments also play a key role, but these too depend closely on educational progress, not just because tomorrow’s knowledge workers and innovators require high levels of education, but also because a highly educated workforce is a prerequisite for adopting new technologies and increasing productivity.

Together, skills and technology have flattened the world, such that all work that can be digitized, automatized, and outsourced can now be done by the most effective and competitive individuals or enterprises, wherever on the globe they are located.

No country has been able to capitalize on the opportunities this “flat world” provides more than the United States, which can draw on the most highly educated labor force among the principal industrialized nations, at least when measured in terms of formal qualifications.

That advantage, however, is largely a result of the “first-mover advantage,” which the United States gained after World War II by massively increasing educational enrollments. It is now eroding quickly, as more and more countries reach and surpass U.S. qualification levels. In fact, many countries are now close to ensuring that virtually all young adults leave schools with at least a high school diploma, which the OECD indicators highlight as the baseline qualification for reasonable earnings and employment prospects. In contrast, the United States has stood still on this measure. Among OECD countries, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey, and Mexico now have lower high school completion rates than the United States.

Even when including qualifications such as the General Educational Development, or GED, credential that people can acquire later in life to make up for unsuccessful school completion, the United States has slipped from first among OECD countries for adults born in the 1940s, to 12th among those born in the 1970s. Again, that’s not because U.S. completion rates declined, but because they have risen so much faster in many other countries. Two generations ago, South Korea had the economic output of Afghanistan today, and was ranked 24th in schooling output among current OECD countries. Today, it is the top performer in terms of the proportion of successful school-leavers, with 96 percent of an age cohort obtaining a high school diploma (compared with 75 percent in the United States).

Quantity matters, but quality is even more important. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, the most comprehensive international effort to test student knowledge and skills, regularly compares the quality of learning outcomes across the principal industrialized countries. Its latest assessment found 15-year-olds in the United States performing below the OECD average in all subjects other than reading. What is more, in a key area such as mathematics, more than a quarter of 15-year-old Americans failed to demonstrate consistently that they have acquired the most basic mathematical skills, namely, the capacity to use direct mathematical inference; use a single representation to help explore and understand a problem; use basic algorithms, formulas, and procedures; make literal interpretations; and apply direct reasoning. A longitudinal follow-up of PISA students in Canada suggests that the absence of foundation skills often signals serious risks for students in their initial transition from education to work, and of failing to benefit fully from further education and learning opportunities throughout life.

Students that did not surpass the most basic performance level on PISA were not a random group. The quarter of American 15-year-olds with the lowest socioeconomic status was almost four times more likely to be among the bottom quarter of performers than the quarter of the most privileged students. It would perhaps be tempting to attribute the performance lag of U.S. students to the challenges that socioeconomic disparities and ongoing immigrant inflows pose to the education system. But among the 41 countries that took part in the latest PISA mathematics assessment, the United States ranks only 10th in the proportion of 15-year-olds with an immigrant background, and all of the countries with larger immigrant shares outperformed the United States.

More generally, it would be wrong to attribute the below-average overall performance of U.S. students solely or even largely to the performance of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. In fact, international comparisons also highlight important U.S. challenges at the top end of the performance distribution: Only 2 percent of American 15-year-olds performed at the highest PISA level of mathematics, demonstrating high-level thinking and reasoning skills in statistical or probabilistic contexts to create mathematical representations of real-world situations, using insight and reflection to solve problems, and being able to formulate and communicate arguments and explanations. On average across OECD countries, the share of top performers was twice as large, and in Belgium, Japan, and South Korea, even four times as large.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from international comparisons is that strong performance, and indeed improvement, is possible. Whether in Asia (Japan or Korea), in Europe (Finland), or in North America (Canada), many countries display strong overall performance and, equally important, show that poor performance in school does not automatically follow from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background. Last but not least, some countries show that success can become a consistent and predictable educational outcome: In Finland, the country with the strongest overall results on PISA, the performance variation between schools amounts to only 5 percent of students’ overall performance variation, so that parents can rely on high and consistent performance standards in whatever school they choose to enroll their children.

Performance on international comparisons cannot simply be tied to money, since only Luxembourg spends more per primary student than the United States, and only Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway spend more per middle and high school student. So what might the United States learn from those countries that achieve more with less? Cross-sectional international comparison alone cannot identify cause-and-effect relationships between certain factors and educational outcomes, especially in relation to the classroom and the processes of teaching and learning that take place there. A recent expert study, however, has reviewed some of the education systems with high performance standards and found key features they share.

Cross-sectional international comparison alone cannot identify cause-and-effect relationships between certain factors and educational outcomes.

First of all, PISA suggests that schools and countries where students work in a climate characterized by high performance expectations, the readiness to invest effort, good teacher-student relations, and high teacher morale tend to achieve better results. Many countries have seen a shift in public and governmental concern away from the mere control over the resources and content of education toward a focus on outcomes. This has driven efforts to articulate the expectations that societies have in relation to learning outcomes and to translate these expectations into the establishment and monitoring of educational goals and standards. Coupled with this are efforts to devolve responsibility to the front line, encouraging responsiveness to local needs, and strengthening accountability systems.

Arguably, that has been the focus of reform efforts in the United States, too, but what distinguishes, for example, the approaches to professional accountability developed in Finland, the use of pupil-performance data and value-added analyses in England, and the approaches to school self-evaluation in Denmark is that these strike a different balance between using accountability tools to maintain public confidence, on the one hand, and to support remediation in the classroom aimed at higher levels of student learning and achievement on the other. These countries have gone beyond systems of external accountability toward building capacity and confidence for professional accountability in ways that emphasize the importance of formative assessment and the pivotal role of school self-evaluation. Where school performance is systematically assessed in these countries, the primary purpose is often not to support contestability of public services or market mechanisms in the allocation of resources. Rather, it is to provide instruments to reveal best practices and identify shared problems in order to encourage teachers and schools to develop learning environments that are more supportive and productive.

Second, in virtually all the countries that performed well on PISA, it is the responsibility of schools and teachers to engage constructively with the diversity of student interests, capacities, and socioeconomic contexts, without having the option of making students repeat the school year, or transferring them to educational tracks or school types with lower performance requirements. Such features often exist in poorer-performing countries, where teachers or school principals can say to themselves that they do the right things, but have the wrong students. Many of the high-performing systems seek to establish bridges from prescribed forms of teaching, curriculum, and assessment, toward an approach predicated on enabling all students to reach their potential.

Of course, many schools and teachers in the United States have for years tailored curriculum and teaching methods to meet the needs of children and young people with great success. But what distinguishes the education systems of, for example, Victoria in Australia, Alberta in Canada, or Finland is the drive to make such practices systemic, through the establishment of clear learning pathways through the education system and fostering the motivation of students to become independent and lifelong learners. Obviously such “personalized learning” demands both curriculum entitlement and choice that delivers a breadth of study and personal relevance. But the personalization in these countries is in terms of flexible learning pathways through the education system, rather than individualized goals or institutional tracking, which have often been shown to lower performance expectations for students and to provide easy ways out for teachers and schools to defer problems rather than solve them.

Attainment Edge Shrinks

Internationally, the United States still ranks among the top performers in the percentage of older adults (ages 35 to 64) with an associate’s degree or higher. But it drops to seventh in the educational attainment of younger adults (ages 25 to 34). While the educational attainment of younger generations is outstripping that of their elders in most other countries, that’s not true in the United States.


SOURCE: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2006

Third, the countries studied share a commitment to professionalized teaching, in ways that imply that teachers are on a par with other professions in terms of diagnosis, the application of evidence-based practices, and professional pride. The image is of teachers who use data to evaluate the learning needs of their students, and are consistently expanding their repertoires of pedagogic strategies to address the diversity in students’ interests and abilities. It also implies schools that adopt innovative approaches to timetabling and the deployment of increasingly differentiated staffing models. Examples include teacher-selection processes as seen in Finland, highly specified professional-development programs such as the National Literacy Strategy in England, and teacher promotion based on professional competence, as is the case in Canada or Sweden.

These efforts move away from traditional educational models that often still operate like a heavy bureaucratic production chain, where year after year new reform ideas are placed on top; where, in the middle, layers of unfinished and incoherent reforms pile up; and where, at the bottom, schools and teachers are confronted with a mix of regulation and prescription that they cannot make sense of and feel no responsibility for. Their aim is to create a knowledge-rich education system, one in which teachers and principals act as partners and have not only the authority to act, but also the necessary information to do so and the access to effective support systems that can assist them in implementing change.

Of course, everywhere, education is a knowledge industry, in the sense that it is concerned with the transmission of knowledge. But it is far from becoming a knowledge industry in the sense that its own practices are being transformed by knowledge about the efficacy of those practices. In many other fields, people enter their professional lives expecting their practice to be transformed by research. That’s not so in education. There is, of course, a large body of research about learning, but much of it is unrelated to the kind of real-life learning that is the focus of formal education. Even that which is has an insufficient impact when education continues as a cottage industry, with practitioners working in isolation and building their practice on folk wisdom about what works. Central prescription of what teachers should do, which still dominates today’s schools, will not transform teachers’ practices in the way that professional engagement in the search for evidence of what makes a difference can.

External accountability systems are an essential part of this search, but they are not enough. Among OECD countries, we find countless tests and reforms that have resulted in giving schools more money or taking it away; developing greater reliance on prescribed standards or less; making classes larger or smaller, often without measurable effects. What distinguishes the top performer, Finland, is that it places the emphasis on building various ways for networks of schools to stimulate and spread innovation, as well as to collaborate to provide curriculum diversity, extended services, and professional support. Finland fosters strong approaches to leadership and a variety of system-leadership roles. These help reduce between-school variation through systemwide networking, and build lateral accountability.

Finland has moved from hit-or-miss policies to the establishment of universal high standards, from maintaining uniformity to embracing diversity, from a focus on provision to a focus on choice. It has turned from managing inputs and a bureaucratic approach to education toward devolving responsibilities and enabling outcomes, from talking about equity to delivering equity. It is a system in which schools no longer receive prefabricated wisdom, but take initiative on the basis of data and best practice.

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