Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Leaders for learning

by Montserrat Gomendio
Deputy Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

The success of the Olympic games this year has been thrilling to watch, with the coaches of different teams playing a widely recognised role. As leaders with a vision, coaches choose the members of their teams, assign roles, train and support athletes. In the same way, leaders in all fields are recognised as having a huge responsibility in the success or failure of their teams.

The role that is expected of school principals varies enormously, and the consequences of different leadership styles remain unclear. Should school leaders focus on administration, on curriculum and teaching related tasks, on the support and professional development of teachers, or on a combination of all of the above? What kind of training is needed to become a school principal? What type of decision making is more effective: a leader with the vision to integrate all actors or a distributed system in which most decisions are shared?

This is the school leader profile that the recent OECD report, School Leadership for Learning: Insights from TALIS 2013, using the results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013, has sought to identify.  

Using data about principals, the report examined how school leaders share instructional leadership (principals’ practices related to the improvement of teaching and learning within school) and distributed leadership (the ability of schools to incorporate different stakeholders into decision-making processes). Most principals engage in one form of instructional leadership, but about one third do not actively support these actions, highlighting that further stimulation of leadership for learning is needed. For distributed leadership, most systems incorporate teachers into school decision-making processes, but the opportunities offered to parents/guardians and students to actively participate in school decisions differ. Given the complexity and dynamics of educational change, these subtle differences in engaging additional stakeholders in the decision-making process could represent important differences in the quality of educational processes that take place within schools.

Leadership practices are related to building capacity for quality instruction, and the OECD report explores the relationship between instructional and distributed leadership and the establishment of professional learning communities; a structure that allows teachers to collaborate and engage in dialogue with the aim of improving their practice. Professional learning communities are measured through five indicators including teacher engagement in reflective dialogue, a shared sense of purpose, engagement in collaborative activity, among others.*

Principals who show greater instructional leadership work in schools where teachers are more engaged in reflective dialogue and collaboration in primary and lower secondary education. This may indicate that principals’ efforts to develop co-operation and promote a sense of responsibility in teachers affect teacher collaboration. Distributed leadership is also positively related to a shared sense of purpose in the school. This finding, which is seen across all educational levels, suggests that involving students and their parents/guardians, along with staff, creates a culture of shared responsibility for school issues.

Instructional and distributed leadership are related to the development of different indicators of professional learning communities. Some school leaders mainly rely on instructional leadership while only partly involving other stakeholders in decision-making processes, and some rely heavily on the participation of other stakeholders. The results of the School Leadership for Learning report show that combining instructional and distributed leadership, and using student outcomes to develop the school’s goals, programme and professional development plan, appears to be the most favourable approach to establishing a professional learning community within a school. For developing these communities, a more integrated role for the school leader seems appropriate.

The role of the school leader is essential for pupil and staff success, and although good practice exists, there is still room for improvement. This could be achieved through professional development activities that encourage principals to follow developments in their field, and help them to understand their role as a school leader. 

For more details about these results, please see the new Teaching in Focus brief: “School Leadership for developing Professional Learning Communities”.


School Leadership for Learning: Insights from TALIS 2013
Teaching in Focus No. 15: School Leadership for developing Professional Learning Communities, by Pablo Fraser
La direction d’établissement : un atout pour le développement des communautés d’apprentissage professionnel, par Pablo Fraser
TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning
For more on the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS): http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/talis.htm
Photo credit: Teacher Helping Pupils Studying At Desks In Classroom @Fotolia
*To observe the additional indicators of professional learning communities please refer to the School Leadership for Learning" report

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Can OECD’s data guide the world towards better education systems?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

What do we have to do to ensure that all children and adults around the world get the best possible education? This question is important not only for individuals’ futures, but also for the fate of the planet. The outcomes of education will determine whether mankind will be able to face the many challenges ahead, from climate change to migration, from peace to economic growth and social progress. At the same time, the question is also tremendously difficult to answer. Historically, education systems have developed at different paces, under varying social, religious and cultural conditions. In a diverse and fragmented world, there are many definitions of “good education”.

Therefore, it is a small wonder that the world has been able to agree on a shared vision for the future of education by negotiating an ambitious goal for education as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), to be attained by 2030. Goal 4 of the SDGs aims to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Compared with previous attempts to set goals and standards for education, the new education SDG focuses more on the quality and equity of learning outcome than on participation. It also charts a clear path for growth and progress for education systems in so-called developed countries.

The education SDG does not prescribe how to achieve quality and equity; it simply asserts the rationale behind the goal: to ensure that all human beings have the knowledge and skills to thrive in life and contribute to their societies.

It is critically important that the education SDG and its component ten targets are now translated into real policies. The risk is that some countries will see the goal as a beautiful narrative that has nothing to do with them. The OECD has learned, from its long history of offering policy advice, that peer pressure is most persuasive when it is based on comparable data. Over the years, the OECD and other international organisations have built an impressive database on education; now is the time to use that data to monitor progress towards our common goal for education.

Today, the OECD publishes its 2016 edition of Education at a Glance, the most comprehensive collection of statistical data and indicators on education available. From this year’s edition onwards, Education at a Glance will provide a platform for measuring countries’ progress towards the education SDG. Even if the international community has not yet fully agreed on the standards and benchmarks for assessing achievement, countries can begin measuring their progress now, since data on many aspects of the goal and its targets are already available.

For OECD countries, the data are sobering. Of the 35 OECD countries for which relevant data are available, only 12 have attained at least half of the targets; many still have a long way to go.

Sometimes the lip service paid to improving quality and equity in education stands in sharp contrast to the reality, as shown by the data. At the same time, data should not only be used to “name and shame” countries; data also point to good examples and the many cases of excellent practice. They can reveal hidden treasures of successful policies and practices in education. This year's Education at a Glance shows that only a handful of countries are on track on all targets towards the education SDG; but at the same time, it shows that all countries have excellent results on some of the targets. In other words, every country has something valuable to share with others. Through sharing best policies and best practices, identified through data, countries can move ever closer to attaining the ambitious goal that they have set for themselves. 

Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Regards sur l'éducation 2016: Les indicateurs de l'OCDE
Follow #OECDEAG 2016 on Twitter: @OECDEduSkills
Chart source: © OECD

Friday, September 09, 2016

What makes education governance and reform work beyond the drawing table?

by Florian Köster
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Today’s education systems need to adapt practices to local diversity while ensuring common goals. Given the complexity of modern education systems, seemingly straightforward changes may result in unexpected consequences, making effective production, use and exchange of knowledge – policy-relevant know-how – across the system indispensable. Good governance requires opening up the knowledge system to a broad range of stakeholders. It needs to allow for competing know-how on all governance-levels and must create practices that manage to integrate different forms of knowledge.

Just published, Education Governance in Action: Lessons from Case Studies bridges theory and practice by connecting major themes in education governance to real-life reform efforts in various countries. The publication builds upon detailed case studies of education reform efforts in Flanders (Belgium), Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden. The case studies are complemented by additional examples of efforts to restore and sustain trust in education systems. Together they provide a rich illustration of governance challenges – and successes – countries see today.
The volume highlights the interdependence between knowledge and governance and casts a spotlight on those processes with which governance systems struggle the most in the real-world implementation of education reforms: capacity building, accountability and strategic thinking.

In balancing local responsiveness with central goals, a dynamic and flexible knowledge system is only half of the equation. The other half pertains to governance processes. Successful governance and reform also relies on:
  • aligning responsibilities to avoid frictions between stakeholders and between policies;
  • implementing a constructive accountability system that guides stakeholders towards common goals while allowing responsible risk-taking in the quest to improve;
  • supporting actors in adapting policy and using evidence for innovation; and
  • building stable practices that enable continuous strategic thinking.
Aligning policies can increase their efficiency and effectiveness: Clear responsibilities from the beginning reduce future costs and potential side-stepping of responsibilities. If policies are aligned, stakeholders face fewer competing demands, in turn reducing confusion and improving efficiency. When communicated effectively, aligning responsibilities and policies can also send a strong positive signal of joint effort and collaboration.

A strong accountability system sets clear guidelines and expectations. However, there is a general tension that cannot be overlooked: accountability mechanisms that seek to minimise deviation and mistakes could have a negative impact on the trial and error required for innovation. In the mission to future-proof our education systems, constructive accountability mechanisms need to reconcile quality assurance across the system with the vitality needed for innovation. Actors need the trust and confidence to take the necessary leap of faith to do things differently in the search of improvement.

Supporting stakeholders in the implementation and adaptation of policies to the local situation is vital for lasting change. This includes building the capacity to gather and use evidence for local innovation as well as policy implementation. Without sustained support, incentives and guidelines, any policy risks being derailed in the day-to-day practice.

There is one last crucial element: keeping the long-term perspective in mind. Continuous strategic thinking is tough, particularly when current events overthrow priorities in the public opinion and political discussion. Nevertheless maintaining a long-term vision is a fundamental ingredient to effective governance. While the urgent undoubtedly needs to be addressed, it is essential that strategic thinking is not overshadowed by current urgencies. Here, consolidating change through efforts at multiple points and winning the support of a broad base of stakeholders is one of the most important aspects.

The search for effective and efficient education governance for today’s and tomorrow’s education systems will certainly continue in the years to come. Based on real-world examples, the volume suggests promising pathways to successfully adapt to today’s complex environment and to steer a clear course to the future of education governance.
Education Governance in Action: Lessons from Case Studies
Governing Education in a Complex World
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) webpage
Find out more on Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)
Photo credit: flat 3d isometric design of e-learning concept@Shutterstock

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Complex mathematics isn’t for everyone (but maybe it should be)

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Put a complicated algebraic equation or geometry problem in front of a 15-year-old student (or, for that matter, just about anyone) and you can almost see the brain at work: I. Can’t. Do.This.

Most of us have found ourselves in this situation at one point or another. But many students, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, have never seen these kinds of mathematics problems; their teachers have decided they’re not up to the challenge.  Some might call these students “lucky”; but this month’s PISA in Focus argues otherwise.
Results from PISA 2012 show that while weaker students report higher anxiety when confronted with complex mathematics problems, if their teachers work with them individually, without “dumbing down” the mathematics lesson, these students tend to develop more positive beliefs in their own abilities to solve mathematics problems.
PISA 2012 finds that, on average across OECD countries, about 70% of students attend schools where teachers believe that it is best to adapt academic standards to students’ capacities and needs. Teachers in disadvantaged schools are more likely than those in advantaged schools to agree that the content of instruction should be adapted to what students can do. In Germany, for example, 51% of principals of disadvantaged schools reported that teachers are willing to adapt their standards, while only 13% of principals of advantaged schools reported so.
Most of these teachers choose to adapt their instruction to their students’ abilities because they want to be sure that all students can follow the lessons. But differentiating course content, based on students’ abilities, could deny low achievers access to the same learning opportunities that their higher-achieving peers enjoy. And that, in turn, could lead to the same kind of segregation of low-performing students that is the usual result of early tracking or grade repetition.
The best way to avoid this outcome is to offer struggling students individual support so that they can “catch up” with the rest of the class – and gain some self-confidence along the way. If teachers believe that some differentiation is necessary, they can opt to use teaching methods that do not segregate weak students further, such as making students work in groups that are frequently reconfigured on the basis of students’ needs and progress.
We may not all be born mathematicians, but we all need to learn how to work hard and persevere to achieve our goals – whether those are solving difficult equations or writing a novel or repairing a car engine. We all need to be challenged – and we all, from time to time, need guidance and support from teachers who can help us meet those challenges.

PISA in Focus No. 65: Should all students be taught complex mathematics? by Mario Piacentini
Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All
Find out more about PISA:oecd.org/edu/pisa
Photo credit:  Male teacher writing various high school maths and science formula on whiteboard@Shutterstock

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Do labour markets welcome shorter tertiary degrees?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

At the turn of this century, two different models of higher education programmes prevailed in the world. The first mainly consisted of three- or four-year programmes leading to a first qualification – a bachelor’s degree – sometimes followed by a “postgraduate” programme at the master’s level. This model predominated in the United States, the United Kingdom and most other English-speaking countries. The second model, prevalent in Europe, entailed long, integrated programmes – in some fields of study, six, seven or even eight years long - leading to a plenitude of qualifications. Emerging economies in Asia mainly copied the American model, while Latin-American countries mainly followed the model of the European colonising powers.

Sixteen years later, the global landscape of higher education looks much different. What happened is that the continental European model transformed itself to the standard of the English-speaking world, which was considered to be more successful, both in scientific research and in education and labour market outcomes. This process of reform was instigated by the Bologna Declaration of 1999 and the so-called Bologna Process, through which the study programmes in all signatory countries were reformed.

The Bologna Process is mostly seen as a process of harmonisation – some would even say “standardisation” – of study programmes in the “European Higher Education Area” in order to promote European integration and mobility. Less well-known is that one of its objectives was to reduce the length of study at European universities and to ensure that people would enter the labour market at a younger age. Having young people first start their working life at the age of 27 or 28, which was often the case in Germany and Italy, was seen as unsustainable. Economic lobby groups, such as the European Round Table of Industrialists, argued explicitly in favour of a drastic reduction in the length of study programmes; national governments and the European Commission responded.

The Bologna reform process has largely been a success, although in some countries the transition is still not completed. Most programmes are now structured around the “bachelor’s/master’s” model. But are there more graduates with bachelor’s degrees or with qualifications from short-cycle tertiary programmes in the labour force? And are these graduates sought after by employers? The Bologna reforms implied changes to the supply side of education, but has the demand side – the labour market – adjusted itself to these new graduates?

The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief provides some interesting statistics on this. The data show that among adults with a tertiary degree, the share of 25-34 year-old graduates holding a bachelor’s or equivalent degree as their highest level of educational attainment is ten percentage points larger than the share of 55-64 year-olds holding similar degrees, on average across OECD countries. In some countries, such as Italy, which is famous for its long study programmes, the difference is as large as 20 percentage points. In 2015, almost one in two (49%) tertiary-educated 25-34 year-olds has, at most, a bachelor’s degree or equivalent.

As expected, among tertiary-educated adults, the share of graduates with a master’s degree has declined, but the rise of the prevalence of bachelor’s degrees is also the result of a decline in short-cycle tertiary qualifications. This is surprising, because the Bologna reforms also prompted new interest in the potential of short-cycle study programmes below the bachelor’s level. While some countries have expanded access to and availability of such short programmes, others have not, or have even phased them out.

The figure above gives a detailed profile of 25-34 year-old tertiary graduates across OECD and some partner countries. The general picture is that the higher the level of qualification, the better the employment rate, with holders of doctoral degrees and the equivalent benefitting from the highest employment rates. But the differences among the employment rates among the four qualification levels vary enormously across countries. The variation is actually larger for those with master’s degrees or short-cycle qualifications than for those with a bachelor’s degree. In two-thirds of the countries examined – those at the left side of the chart – at least 80% of graduates with a bachelor’s degree are employed. This means that in these countries, labour markets have adjusted well and have opened up opportunities for bachelor’s degree holders, even if, only a few decades ago, this level of qualification did not provide access to jobs. The one-third of countries at the right of the figure has not yet adjusted their labour markets to this new reality; they still value master’s degrees more than bachelor’s degrees. In some of these countries, such as Greece, Italy and Spain, the employment rates for all levels of qualifications are extremely low.

The situation for short-cycle programmes is even more confusing. Employers in some countries, including Austria, France and Luxembourg, seem to value these qualifications highly. In others, such as Norway and Sweden, there seem to be few employment opportunities for adults with short-cycle qualifications. And in many more countries, labour markets still have to adjust to be able to absorb graduates of these programmes.

Educational reforms are often grounded in a predominantly supply-side approach; and governments and higher education institutions often expect labour markets to adjust easily to these reforms. But in order to safeguard the future of young people it is much more important to look at the interaction between the supply and demand sides. In order to co-ordinate the acquisition of skills and qualifications with the exigencies of jobs and workplace needs, education and labour market stakeholders need to work together. In most countries, a well-balanced supply of bachelor’s and master’s degrees now seems to be in place, and that’s a major achievement. In these countries, the bachelor’s degree is now a well-established level of tertiary qualification, providing access to jobs and professions. But in a large group of countries, better policies are needed for both sides of the equation to match the supply with the demand for skills and qualifications.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Is more vocational education the answer?

by Herman van de Werfhorst, Andrea Forster, Thijs Bol*

A few years ago, Eric Hanushek gave a keynote lecture at a conference at the Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies. The talk was entitled "Is more vocational education the answer?" and spoke to debates in the United States about whether or not to strengthen the vocational education and training sector. The U.S. education system is much more “general”  in nature than the German and Dutch education systems, which are more vocationally oriented. Is it sensible for the United States to adopt a German-style education system with a strong dual (work- and school-based) sector?

Vocational education and training can mean very different things to different people. In some countries, it refers to education and training provided by and in schools, with no or limited exposure to real work situations. In other countries, it designates systems where much of the training is provided in a work place by the employer. The latter is often called “dual system” or apprenticeship.

Hanushek's lecture warned against an overly optimistic interpretation of the vocational training sector. While strong vocational education and training systems may do well in integrating school leavers into the workforce (as has been documented before), vocational education is harmful in the later phases of work careers. More vocational education is definitely not the answer, according to Hanushek, Schwerdt, Woessmann and Zhang: Vocationally qualified workers are the first to be laid off after the age of 50 because their specific skills are likely to be outdated.

Looking at the impact of vocational education across a lifetime is fascinating, illuminating and highly relevant for policy debates on how to organise an education system. A true trade-off emerges between the short-term (early career) gains and the long-term (late career) losses, and tradeoffs like these
should be evident to policy makers when they think about changing the education system.

Micro-level and macro-level questions
We felt that it was premature to write off the vocational education and training system just yet. From Hanushek et al.'s paper, it wasn't clear whether the problem is a micro-level issue of workers educated in vocational schools relative to those educated in more general programmes, or a macro-level issue concerning the education system. It may be true that people with vocational qualifications are less likely to be employed later in their career, but maybe that pattern is unrelated to the way that vocational education is organised in a country. In fact, while the question "is more vocational education the answer?" is a system-level question, it was answered in a micro-level fashion by Hanushek and associates.

So we tested whether the lifetime employment profiles of adults with vocational versus general forms of education vary by the size of the dual system, using data on 22 countries from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). The warning of Hanushek to the proponents of a German-style vocational training system should imply that the late-career disadvantage of vocational degrees would be more pronounced in countries with a large dual system. However, we did not find evidence of that.

Two graphs from our paper tell most of the story. The figure below shows the age-employment profiles for people with vocational and general types of education. In line with Hanushek et al.'s micro-level hypothesis, we see higher probabilities of being employed for vocationally qualified workers at the start of their career, but lower probabilities late in their career, among both men and women. This is controlled for level of education, numeracy proficiency and parents’ education.  

                       Predicted probabilities of employment by type of education(vocational/general) 


Dual systems and workers
But is this pattern particularly strong in vocationally oriented systems? The figure below shows the effect of vocational education across a lifetime (relative to general education, again controlled for education level, numeracy proficiency and parents’ education), in two types of systems: systems with a strong dual sector and with a weak or no dual sector. It is clear that the early-career benefit of being educated in a vocational programme is strongest in countries with a large dual sector (Germany, Austria), while the advantage turns into a (slight) disadvantage later in the career (but mostly in countries with a weak vocational training sector). However, we do not see that the blue and red lines cross somewhere mid-career, which would be expected based on the thinking that German-style systems, in particular, result in later-career disadvantage for vocationally trained workers. In fact, strong dual systems are characterised by less disadvantage late in the careers of vocationally qualified workers; and the negative effect at the end of the career is not statistically significant (while it is negative and significant in societies that do not have dual systems, like the United States and Canada).

                       Average marginal effect of VET on employment in countries with low and high dual system enrollment 


Based on these findings, we conclude that the pattern of late-career disadvantage is not typical for strong vocational systems; quite the contrary. In all countries, people with vocational degrees are more likely to lose their job late in their career, possibly because of a lack of adequate skills. But if anything, strong dual systems offer a safeguard for those with vocational qualifications. Such systems do not adversely affect employment either at the start or at the end of a career.

Forster, Andrea G., Thijs Bol, and Herman G. Van de Werfhorst. 2016. “Vocational Education and Employment over the Life Cycle.” Sociological Science 3:473–94.
Hanushek, Eric A., Guido Schwerdt, Ludger Woessmann, and Lei Zhang. 2016. “General Education, Vocational Education, and Labor-Market Outcomes over the Life-Cycle.” Journal of Human Resources, 10.3368/jhr.52.1.0415-7074R
Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)  

*Herman van de Werfhorst, Andrea Forster and Thijs Bol are affiliated to the University of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies. Contact: H.G.vandeWerfhorst@uva.nl

Source figures: PIAAC 2012, release March 2015, calculations Forster, Andrea G., Thijs Bol, and Herman G. Van de Werfhorst.

Vocational education and training, depending on its design, can lead to very different outcomes. As argued above, systems with strong apprenticeship or dual systems are associated with better employment prospects than those relying heavily on school-based vocational education and training. The OECD forthcoming study, Striking the Right Balance: Costs and Benefits of Apprenticeships, provides further insights into this topic. Drawing on data from the Survey of Adult Skills, it compares outcomes from apprenticeships with outcomes from alternative education and training options. It also discusses different components of the apprenticeship system and conditions under which apprenticeships yield considerable benefits to employers and students.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Brave New World: The new frontiers of technology and education

by Tracey Burns
Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

“I don’t actually have an attention problem. I just take the pill when I need to be sharp”. Legal drugs such as Ritalin, used for treating attention deficit disorder, are increasingly being repurposed by healthy students to feel sharper on exam day.

"Smart drugs" allegedly improve memory and concentration. In addition to Ritalin other drugs are also taken to aid learning, such as modafinil, normally used to treat sleep disorders. University students can rely on them to pull all-nighters during exam weeks. The belief (true or not) that these drugs might boost academic performance has grown along with their availability – both through a marked increase in the number of prescriptions and  through more prevalent online markets where prescriptions are not as carefully scrutinised.

This raises a series of ethical and practical questions for education. Do smart drugs provide some students with an unfair advantage? Should tertiary institutions take a stand on the illegal use of cognitive performance-enhancing drugs? And what about younger users? Reports of teenagers and even pre-teens abusing smart drugs have raised concern about the lack of research on the impacts of these drugs on developing brains.

These questions highlight some of the more challenging aspects of the technological advances sweeping our classrooms and societies. Trends Shaping Education 2016 looks at how technology is transforming our lives – and asks whether education will be able to keep up.

When we think of technology and education, we usually think of information and communication technologies (ICTs). And indeed, ICTs have changed the way we live. Increasingly mobile technologies allow us to buy our groceries, pay our bills, watch films and attend meetings without ever leaving our homes. In fact, we increasingly do many of these things at once: Internet users perform seven activities at any one time on average, up from five just a few years previous and giving rise to worries of decreasing attention spans among today's youth.

However, technological advances are not exclusive to the Internet. Although it might seem like science fiction, biotechnology is used in medicine to combat disease, in agriculture to produce higher yields and more resistant crops and in the environment to develop cleaner energy. One example of how biotechnology is more integrated in our lives comes from genome sequencing, or the process of revealing the genetic make-up of cells. Once extremely expensive, technological advances have reduced the price exponentially in just a few years. Individuals can now afford to map their genes and identify whether they carry potentially life threatening mutations. Earlier this year scientists from the United Kingdom were given permission to edit the genes of human embryos for research purposes. Will designer babies (and designer students) be part of the future?

The impact of technological trends on education is clear. A great deal of work has already been done to identify how and where education can better use technology in the classroom. And there is interesting new research on emerging opportunities for education and work that could develop from human enhancement and biotechnologies.

In contrast to many trends that are relatively gradual and often linear, the pace of technological development is exponential and its impact much less predictable. One of the most difficult issues will be staying abreast of the evolution of technology and human behaviour: the use of smart drugs is one example. Another is the delicate terrain of human emotion and large online audiences, which has given rise to new risks such as cyber bullying and revenge porn.

In education, schools and teachers are increasingly asked to guide students through the advantages and disadvantages of the virtual world without always having the necessary skills themselves. Difficult questions will evolve as quickly as the technology. For example, how does "textbook learning" interact with the easy answers available at the simple push of a button? Whose voice counts if there is competing information? And what should we do, if anything, about smart drugs and other biotech advances?

The key is adaptability. Worries about decreasing attention spans, digital withdrawal disorder and “fear of missing out” syndrome illustrate the shifting landscape of the future. Advances in biotechnology and smart drugs will continue to raise difficult technical and ethical questions as well as provide new opportunities. All of these issues need to be part of a long-term strategy to help education keep pace with modern society. When Aldous Huxley wrote A Brave New World in 1931 he was worried about the fast paced world of the future. That time has now come, and it is up to us – and our education systems - to make the most of it.

Trends Shaping Education 2016
Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection
Trends Shaping Education 2014 Spotlight 5, Infinite Connections: Education and new technologies
Measuring the Digital Economy: A New Perspective
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Photo credit: Scientist examining samples with plants @Shutterstock

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Can analogue skills bridge the digital divide?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills
The digital divide has shifted. Instead of (and in some places, in addition to) separating people with Internet access from those without access, it now cuts a wide chasm between those who know how to get the most out of the Internet and those who don’t. It’s no longer a matter of getting the tool into people’s hands; it’s a matter of getting people to understand how the tool can work for them.

This month’s issue of PISA in Focus reveals that the fault line at the bottom of this digital divide is socio-economic status. In recent years, there has been great progress in expanding access to the Internet for rich and poor alike. In Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong-China, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, for example, more than 98% of disadvantaged students have access to the Internet at home. In some countries and economies where disparities in home Internet access persist, schools try to compensate. For example, among the most disadvantaged students, 50% of students in Turkey and 45% in Mexico have access to the Internet at school. PISA results show that, given the wide availability of Internet access, disadvantaged students now spend about the same amount of time on line during the weekend as advantaged students do.

But as with any tool, the Internet is most useful when you know how to use it. Results from PISA 2012 show that just because students have access to an Internet connection, it doesn’t mean that they know how to use it for learning. And differences in how students use the Internet seem to be linked to socio-economic status, although the strength of that link varies widely across countries. For example, PISA finds that while disadvantaged students play videogames on line as much as advantaged students do, they are far less likely to read the news or search for practical information on the Internet than their more advantaged peers.

These differences also seem to mirror disparities in more traditional academic abilities – to the extent that once differences in the ability to read and understand printed texts are taken into account, students’ socio-economic status has only a weak, and often insignificant, relationship with students’ performance in the PISA test of reading on line. In other words, rich or poor, students who can read well are better-equipped to make the most of the Internet’s considerable assets.

So the best way to narrow this digital divide is to be sure that all students are given the same opportunities to acquire solid reading and Internet navigation skills – the equivalent of a user’s manual (and a driving permit) for what has become an indispensable tool.


Friday, July 08, 2016

What does a country average actually mean?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

The institutional framework of the international community was created in the period following the Second World War. The building blocks for international organisations, including the OECD, were and are the nation-states of the post-World War and post-colonial order. However, nation-states are not fixed entities, but historical constructions. Hence, they take many different forms and change as a consequence of socio-political transformations. Few states correspond to the ideal form of a nation – identified by a common history, language and religion – or state. In a complex and diverse world, national identities change and become less homogeneous. Today, many states are confronted with political pressures originating from regional aspirations for more autonomy. Sometimes such pressures lead to a separation of political entities and the creation of new states, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia, the former Czechoslovakia and the republics of the former Soviet Union. No one can predict the future, but it would be illusory to expect that the current global order will not continue to evolve during the 21st century.

The international statistical system, one of the great achievements of international organisations, has mirrored the evolution of the nation-state. International statistics – and those related to education are no exception – were tuned towards comparing and benchmarking countries against each other. National averages thus became the dominant data. Most of the data points in Education at a Glance, for example, are national averages. However, the expansion and increased sophistication of data collection and data processing have allowed for the development of many more measures than just national averages. Indeed, averages without more detailed measures of how indicators are distributed across various subpopulations offer little added value when it comes to understanding the real world.
Through its “New Approaches to Economic Challenges” initiative, the OECD is working to highlight distributional measures in its statistical apparatus. In Education at a Glance, for example, our analyses increasingly focus on the distribution of education indicators by gender, age, socio-economic status and immigrant background around the national average.

So far, little effort has gone into exploring regional variations within countries. Technical shortfalls, such as the lack of regional data in existing data collections, but also political sensitivities, have hindered the analysis of regional variations. After a few years of hard work, a pilot project under the auspices of the INES Working Party has gathered a range of interesting regional data on some key education indicators. The most recent edition of Education Indicators in Focus (EDIF) explores subnational variations in educational attainment and labour market outcomes.

The chart above shows clearly the relevance of subnational variations. For one of the key measures of a country’s human capital, the tertiary attainment rate in the adult population, the subnational variation in some countries is almost as wide as between-country variations. This is true, obviously, for large countries, such as Canada, the Russian Federation and the United States, but also for Germany, Spain and Sweden. Smaller countries, such as Belgium, Ireland and Slovenia, show less variation, but differences are still significant.

In all countries, the capital region, which attracts a large share of the nation’s human capital for the government and the industries and services concentrated around it, has a larger population of tertiary-educated adults than most other regions. This observation in itself is relevant for education policy: the civil servants and advisors designing those policies often live in environments that bear no resemblance to other parts of the country.

A better understanding of the magnitude of subnational variations in education indicators prompts a range of policy-relevant questions. Huge disparities in human capital between regions call into question the validity of uniform nation-wide education and skills strategies. Regional variation calls for policies that are adapted to the regions’ specific contexts and realities. But nation-states might also have an interest in promoting educational inclusion in the country by taking the steps necessary to help regions at the bottom of the distribution move closer to the average. Significant regional variation might also signal the need for continuing involvement of the central state to ensure that regions have similar capacity and resources to support skills development.

From a statistical point of view, exploring subnational variations raises doubts about the meaningfulness of national averages in international statistics. It is necessary to understand what the country average is and the magnitude of the regional variation around it. After all, an average is just an average, a statistical construct, not a reality.


Thursday, July 07, 2016

How to transform schools into learning organisations?

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Schools nowadays are required to learn faster than ever before in order to deal effectively with the growing pressures of a rapidly changing environment. Many schools however, look much the same today as they did a generation ago, and too many teachers are not developing the pedagogies and practices required to meet the diverse needs of 21st-century learners.

In response, a growing body of scholars, educators and policy makers around the world is making the case that schools should be re-conceptualised as “learning organisations” that can react more quickly to changing external environments, embrace innovations in internal organisation, and ultimately improve student outcomes. Despite strong support for and the intuitive appeal of the school as a learning organisation, relatively little progress has been made in advancing the concept, either in research or practice. This lack of progress partly stems from a lack of clarity or common understanding of the school as learning organisation.

The OECD-UNICEF Education Working Paper, “What makes a school a learning organisation?” should be seen as a first step towards building a shared understanding of the concept that is solidly founded in the literature and is recognisable to all parties involved, i.e. scholars, educators, policy makers, students and parents.

Based on an in-depth analysis of the literature and informed by a small network of experts, the paper identifies and operationalises an integrated model that consists  of seven over-arching ‘action-oriented' dimensions which show how to transform schools into learning organisations:
  1. Developing and sharing a vision centred on the learning of all students.
  2. Creating and supporting continuous learning opportunities for all staff.
  3. Promoting team learning and collaboration among all staff.
  4. Establishing a culture of inquiry, innovation and exploration.
  5. Embedding systems for collecting and exchanging knowledge and learning.
  6. Learning with and from the external environment and larger learning system.
  7. Modelling and growing learning leadership.
In short, a school as learning organisation has the capacity to change and adapt routinely to new environments and circumstances as its members, individually and together, learn their way to realising their vision.

A set of themes flows through all seven dimensions: the four Ts: trust, time, technology and thinking together. Although some of these themes may seem more pertinent to one action than to another, all four have an impact on the whole. For example, trust underpins the kind of relationships needed internally and externally for learning organisations to thrive; and all aspects of school development require the provision of time.

The OECD Directorate for Education and Skills aims to help countries transform its schools into learning organisations by gathering evidence from a wide range of countries on how to develop schools into learning organisations. The school as learning organisation model’s dimensions and its underlying characteristics, referred to as “elements”, form the starting point for the development of an instrument to (self-) assess the school as learning organisation. The SLO model and assessment instrument under development are intended to provide practical guidance to policy makers, school staff and other stakeholders that wish to develop theirs schools into learning organisations.

As also noted in the Guide for policy makers, school leaders and teachers further guidance and support will be provided to schools and local and system-level stakeholders for catalysing the desired change and innovation, and developing professional learning cultures across their school systems. Through this work the OECD intends to further explore the policies and capacities needed at other levels of the education system to help schools blossom and thrive as learning organisations – and ultimately equip students with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in an uncertain, constantly changing tomorrow.

Kools, M and L. Stoll (2016), “What makes a school a learning organisation?”, OECD Education Working Paper, No 137, OECD Publishing, Paris.
What makes a school a learning organisation? Guide for policy makers, school leaders and teachers
Figure source © OECD

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Skills Summit 2016: Skills strategies for innovation, productivity and inclusion

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Building the skills needed to succeed at work and in life: Charting the path to 2025

In all OECD countries the working-age population is now either growing at a much slower rate than in the past or shrinking, making productivity and innovation the primary engines of economic growth. The expansion of global value chains and technological advances are reshaping the structure of employment and the skill requirements of jobs. Skills demand and supply continue to diverge rather than converge, despite large numbers of unemployed in many countries and pockets of entrenched unemployment in all. Everywhere, too few adults are upgrading their skills in response to the rapidly changing skills needs of the economy and society. At the same time, countries are also struggling with significant social challenges, such as rising inequality and large increases in flows of migrants. Skills are central to responding to all of these challenges.

On June 29 and 30, 26 Ministers and senior government officials from 15 countries representing a wide range of portfolios, including education, employment, trade, economy, and local government, met in Bergen, Norway, for the Skills Summit 2016: Skills Strategies for Productivity, Innovation and Inclusion. They gathered to chart a path towards 2025 and departed with a renewed resolve to prepare their countries for the skills challenges on the horizon.

Effective skills strategies are essential, yet hard to build
Building effective national skills strategies is critical for making progress on these issues, but countries often struggle to foster the government and society-wide commitment needed to make cross-sectoral skills strategies a reality.

Participants at the Skills Summit spoke frankly about the difficulties they face in putting skills policy at the top of a crowded policy agenda and keeping it there. While action needs to be taken today to ensure that we have the skills we will need tomorrow, this can often be forgotten in the face of pressures to respond to the immediate crises of the day. Too often, the urgent crowds out the important.

Evidence from many quarters, including the Survey of Adult Skills which released new country data earlier this week, shows that skills are critical to people’s economic and social success. What is far less clear is what skills will matter the most in the future. People need to develop skills today that will allow them to succeed in jobs that in many cases do not yet exist, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve problems that have not yet been identified.  It is even possible that in the future, as technological advances replace more and more of the work currently performed by humans, we will be asking less about what skills matter for the labour market and more about what skills matter for meaningful social participation and inclusion. While none of us knows for sure what challenges and opportunities the future holds, what is certain is that we will face them with the skills we develop today.

At the Summit, Ministers acknowledged the need to craft whole-of-government approaches to skills policy. A wide range of factors influence skills needs and outcomes, and responsibility for these areas is spread widely across many ministries and all levels of government. Beyond the ministries of education and employment, ministries of industry, economic development and finance are also involved. Despite growing awareness, all too often cross-ministerial and cross- government collaboration fails to happen in practice.

Collaboration with social partners and other stakeholders is equally critical if we are to achieve enduring success in developing and deploying skills effectively. Ministers were clear that Governments cannot act in splendid isolation if their aim is to improve skills outcomes. Yet engaging employers, labour and people in the co-production of skills policies is complex and requires sustained political commitment.

Maximising a country’s skills potential is everyone’s business. As hosts of the Skills Summit, and pioneers in undertaking a national skills strategy project with the OECD, Norway was well placed to share lessons learned from its experience in building shared commitment and concerted action across ministries, counties, local governments and social partners. Ever-mindful that the actions Norway takes today will drive innovation, productivity and prosperity in the future, while ensuring that no-one is left behind.

International cooperation on skills policies is needed to deliver better skills outcomes
So what more can be done? Despite their diversity, countries appear to be struggling with similar and longstanding challenges, so there is a clear case to be made for greater international cooperation in this area. The Skills Summit provided a valuable opportunity for countries to learn from one another. But it was just a starting point.

For its part, the OECD is upgrading its capacity to meet growing demand from countries for support in building effective skills strategies.

During the Skills Summit, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría announced the launch of the OECD Centre for Skills saying “Better skills policies can help us to overcome these challenges and transform many into opportunities”, according to Angel Gurría, Secretary General at the OECD. “But despite growing recognition of the importance of skills for economic growth and social inclusion, many countries are still failing to anchor skills policies at the centre of national policy agendas and make progress on long standing skills challenges.”

This Centre will support countries in developing and implementing better skills policies in three main ways:
  • First, the Centre will continue to carry out national skills strategy projects with both member and non-member countries, building upon our successful experience to date of working with 10 countries;
  • Second, the Centre will mobilise expertise from across the OECD to develop useful analytical tools while promoting peer-learning by convening policy-makers at the Skills Summit and practitioners on a regular basis;
  • Third, the Centre will draw upon this rich experience to periodically update the OECD Skills Strategy to ensure it continues to respond to countries’ changing and evolving needs.
At the OECD we are excited about the new opportunities that the Centre will offer countries. For it is only by working together that in 2025 we will be able to fuel innovation, productivity and inclusion through better skills.

For more on the OECD’s work on skills and skills policies around the world, visit: http://www.oecd.org/skills/
Photo credit:@OECD

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why skills matter

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s the time of year when young people in the northern hemisphere are finishing their formal studies for the year – or for the foreseeable future. Some will soon be working at their first jobs, some are just beginning to look for a job, some may have been looking for months with nothing to show for it. What links the classroom and lecture hall to the workplace? Skills.

Three years ago, the OECD published the First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of our Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC. That report found that adults who are highly proficient in the information-processing skills measured by the survey – literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments – are more likely to be employed and earn high wages. They are also more likely to report that they trust others, that they have an impact on the political processes, and that they are in good health.

Since those first results were published, nine more countries and economies have joined the survey. While the results from these countries/economies, published today in Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, broadly confirm those from the countries/economies that participated in Round 1 of the survey, some messages have emerged more clearly.

For example, in Singapore, one of the nine countries/economies that participated in the second round of the survey, young people perform much better than older adults in all three domains assessed. While younger adults outperform their older compatriots in many of the countries/economies surveyed, in no other country is the difference between the proportion of 25-34 year-olds with tertiary education and the proportion of 55-65 year-olds who have attained that level of education as large (53 percentage points) as it is in Singapore. Only 2.4% of Singapore’s 55-65 year-olds demonstrate strong literacy skills, while young Singaporeans now benefit from one of the world’s most advanced education systems. This shows that even as Singapore expanded access to education over the past few decades, the country was able to maintain the quality of the education provided – adding further strength to the argument that expansion of education does not have to come at the expense of the quality of education.

Jakarta (Indonesia) is also among the nine Round 2 countries/economies. Although adults in Jakarta score lower in literacy and numeracy, on average, than adults in any other participating country/economy (more than one in two adults in Jakarta score at or below Level 1 in literacy), their participation in the survey confirms that valuable data on education and skills can be gathered in less economically developed countries. For example, several participating countries and economies, including Jakarta, have large populations of adults who perform poorly in literacy; but none of these populations can be said to be illiterate. How do we know that? The survey includes a special assessment for these adults to pinpoint where their difficulties in literacy lie. Most of these adults recognise words, but have trouble determining whether a sentence makes sense logically in a real-world context.

In both rounds, there is a relatively strong link between performance in the survey and in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for the age cohorts covered by both surveys. The performance of a particular age group in PISA is a reasonably good predictor of that group’s performance some years later in the Survey of Adult Skills. The message is loud and clear: if countries want a highly skilled work force, they have to get compulsory education right. This is not to say that acquiring and developing literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills stops once people leave school. In fact, the evidence shows that proficiency continues to improve over time, and that developing and maintaining – or losing – skills over a lifetime is affected by such factors as participation in work and training, which, in turn, can be influenced by policy. But school is one of the key places in which these skills are acquired, and the failings of schooling can be costly and difficult to rectify.

Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
The Survey of Adult Skills: Reader's Companion
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
For OECD work on skills: www.oecd.org/skills
Follow: #OECDSkills

Friday, June 24, 2016

Understanding how the brain processes maths learning

by Francesca Gottschalk
Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Numbers are universal and constantly confronting us in daily life. In fact, they are so omnipresent that most of us perform basic mathematical calculations every single day without even realising it – when we glance at the clock, count change for a morning coffee, or even when we check the calendar to plan the weeks ahead.

It is, therefore, no surprise that student performance in maths is not only a key indicator for potential academic achievement, but also of future employability and overall participation in our “knowledge economy” society. Without the ability to make sense of the numbers that surround us, one would be completely lost in our modern world (even with a smartphone in hand!).

The question of how we actually learn maths and whether everyone has the ability to do so is thus a crucial one and should be of interest to parents, teachers and policy-makers alike. A new Education Working Paper entitled “The Neuroscience of Mathematical Cognition and Learning” explores the development of numerical cognition and explains that numeracy is actually an innate skill, inherent in humans from birth and further enhanced through formal education. Research indicates that babies as young as one day old are able to judge whether different quantities of objects are equal or not, and by the age of six months, infants often have the ability to discriminate up to three or four objects. It is then through schooling that children learn basic numerical principles –  for example addition and subtraction tables – and the more their ability to process these becomes automatic, the more they are able to devote brain resources (such as attention and working memory) to more complex numerical tasks.

Another way in which we can see the development of innate numeracy skills is through language, as language and maths learning go hand in hand. In literate cultures, number symbols and counting are integral for learning more complicated maths functions that go beyond approximation and simple counting. Illiterate cultures have also developed various trading and counting systems, allowing them to quantify objects and carry out basic maths operations. French researcher Pierre Pica, who spent time examining Amazonian groups, reported that although these groups are illiterate and cannot count, they still exhibit basic trading and approximation systems (illustrated through their daily transactions). This suggests the universality of basic maths systems in the human brain and the importance of the development in tandem of advanced maths and literacy skills. In order to effectively perform arithmetic operations and subsequently learn more complex functions, we need to have culturally transmissible and understood number symbols, which presuppose literacy within a population.

If our numerical abilities are innate, and literacy rates across OECD countries are relatively high, why then are there so many people who struggle with maths? The answer lies in the complexity of learning more advanced maths, which involves many regions of the brain. While it may seem that learning addition and subtraction tables should be a breeze for many students, when we start looking at the complicated processes involved in these different systems, we can understand that disruptions in these pathways can have huge impacts on learning abilities. We can see these effects, for example, in students with developmental dyscalculia (DD) or maths anxiety. In DD, it is thought that there is a deficient level of connectivity between various brain regions, whereas maths anxiety involves a number of cognitive processes such as emotion regulation and attitudinal factors that can hinder maths performance and learning. For example, results to questions about anxiety towards mathematics in the 2012 cycle of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that students in low-performing countries tended to report higher levels of anxiety towards maths in comparison to countries scoring above the OECD average.

What does this mean for the teaching of maths in schools? This paper highlights the fact that there are neither “good” nor “bad” math learners. While there is the potential for students to suffer from various missteps in the maths path, the innate ability for humans to understand numbers and gain numerical skills shows promise even for those students who struggle to grasp basic mathematical concepts, and this is encouraging. For example, the new PISA report, Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All”, illustrates how the use of innovative teaching methods can foster students’ motivation to overcome barriers in maths learning. If teachers and policy-makers better understand how maths learning occurs in the brain, we can start to uncover and implement new strategies to assist students in need, helping them keep their maths path as clear as possible.

Working paper No. 136: The Neuroscience of Mathematical Cognition and Learning, by Chung Yen Looi, Jacqueline Thompson, Beatrix Krause, and Roi Cohen Kadosh
Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science
Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All
Photo credit: Book shelf in form of head on formulas backgrounds @Shutterstock