Written by Marcin Grajewski
Educational performance has largely stagnated in many countries over the last two decades despite increasing spending on education, according to recent findings from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), published every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The Paris-based OECD also cautions governments that, while shaping their education policies, they should take such issues as gender, social equality, the culture of cooperation or competition, as well as students’ self-confidence into account. These factors affect the educational process as much as the syllabus, noted OECD experts, politicians and other analysts at an event organised in the European Parliament in late January. The event on PISA, which measures students’ ability to read, do maths and master science subjects, took place in the European Parliamentary Research Service’s (EPRS) Library Reading Room on 29 January 2020. The event was part of the fast developing EPRS-OECD cooperation programme.
PISA skills have been measured since 2000. Anthony Gooch, OECD Director for Public Affairs, stressed that this measurement had an immediate impact due to what news media called ‘the German shock’. This was the discovery in the early 2000s, that German students, thought to be among world leaders in educational terms, actually achieved mediocre results.
Nearly 20 years later, ‘We have not seen significant progress across countries, whereas if you look at financing, expenditure per student, it has increased, by 15 %’, noted Yuri Belfali, Head of Early Childhood and Schools, Directorate for Education at the OECD. China, Singapore, Estonia and Canada lead the OECD ranking, and, of more than 70 countries taken into account in the study, Kosovo, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines scored the worst.
Those results also made front-page headlines when the current report was published in early December 2019. Belfali presented a more nuanced view of the report, which helps countries understand their challenges better: ‘There was a ranking, but PISA can show much more beyond the ranking. We can understand challenges and opportunities. PISA contributes to peer learning and learning by comparison’, he stated.
For example, PISA also values equity, how education systems offer equal opportunities for students regardless of their background. Here, Slovakia displays a big gap between the poorest and richest in society, although it achieves the OECD average. In Portugal, the poorest students are achieving the average in Slovakia. In China, even the poorest student can achieve the OECD average.
Another factor is what the OECD calls a growth mind-set – or students’ belief that they can develop and change themselves for the better. A high growth mind-set is related to students’ high motivation to master tasks and confidence in tackling problems or setting the goals for themselves. Here, for example, Poland scores poorly, despite being among the leaders in the general ranking.
The culture of competition or cooperation is also important. In countries such as high-scorers Netherlands or Denmark, for example, the OECD saw more students open to cooperation than to competition. Competition was much more important in the United Kingdom, United States or Brazil. Cooperation helps the education process. ‘But competition can also be useful, if it is well designed, for students to be encouraged to try something hard. If too much competition impacts on their emotional well-being, however, it may work negatively on students’ performance,’ said Belfali.
Finally, she noted that the gender gap is a common challenge for all countries, although the type of challenges are different by countries. Typically, girls outperform boys in reading, and boys outperform girls in maths. This then corresponds to their imagined future profession: many girls think they will become doctors, nurses or teachers, while boys consider a future as information technology workers and engineers. According to Belfali, ‘This is not necessarily related to student performance. Even high performing girls in science and maths do not necessarily expect to get into study in engineering or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This may be related to expectations transmitted by parents and communities to boys and girls, or the development of confidence’.
Sabine Verheyen (EPP, Germany), Chair of the EP Culture and Education Committee, lauded the OECD study. ‘We want our children to receive the best education possible. And the best way to guarantee this is to take a look around, to compare and to learn from each other. This is what makes the PISA study so valuable,’ she said. She added: ‘In my opinion, it is not desirable to make our European systems exactly the same and equalise everything, but we should make them comparable’.
Sara Baiocco, a Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies think tank, highlighted the growing importance of renewing digital skills and learning throughout life in a fast changing labour market. Both Baiocco and Verheyen underlined that the PISA should focus more on digital skills. In response, Belfali announced that there are indeed plans to measure this in the next survey in 2021.