Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In case you haven’t heard…

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s (almost) that time again: in just a few short weeks we’ll be hearing a lot more about how well our education systems are doing compared with others around the world. On 6 December, the latest results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA, will be made public. If you aren’t yet sure about what PISA is or how it works, check out this new video. And watch this space: there will be more PISA-related information posted here in the coming weeks to help you understand what everyone will be talking about when the results from the 2015 assessment are released.

The Alliance for Excellent Education and OECD webinar : PISA 2015: A Sneak Preview 
Tuesday 25 October 2016 9:30 am – 10:30 am ET
Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and former governor of West Virginia and Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills share sample questions from PISA and discuss how PISA can impact education policy around the world.
Watch webinar here.
Follow #OECDPISA on twitter

Friday, October 07, 2016

What can maths teachers learn from PISA?

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

When we think back on schools in the 20th century, we imagine rows of students facing the front of the classroom and listening to the teacher lecture. Even though more and more education policies over the past 20 years are encouraging teachers to give students the chance to actively participate in their learning, in 2012, only one in four students across OECD countries reported that their teacher asks them to break out into small groups to work out a problem on their own.

Of course, teachers want students to enjoy the learning process but they also want students to focus on the topic at hand, keeping disorder in the classroom to a minimum. OECD’s newest report, Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers… and how PISA can help answer them, based on PISA 2012 data, delves into diverse teaching and learning methods and what works for different types of classrooms around the world.

When it comes to learning mathematics, certain teacher-directed learning strategies, such as asking questions to check whether students understand what has been taught, has proven to work well when solving basic mathematics problems. And research does show that student-oriented strategies, such as allowing students to collaborate and direct their own learning, can have a positive impact on their learning and motivation.

But teacher-directed strategies, and in fact all teaching strategies, work best when teachers also challenge students and encourage them to focus more on the process rather than the answer. These types of strategies, known as cognitive-activation strategies, ask students to summarise, question and predict – requiring students to link new information to information they have already learned and apply their skills to a new context where the answer to a problem is not immediately obvious or can even be solved in multiple ways. In fact, PISA data indicate that across OECD countries, students who reported that their teachers use cognitive-activation strategies more frequently in their mathematics classes score higher in mathematics.

Depending on the classroom environment, teachers understand that they need to combine different strategies to ensure that students grasp the basic concepts but are also able to advance further when ready, tackling more challenging problems on their own.

Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers explores these topics along with others that are relevant for mathematics teachers today. The report takes findings based on PISA data and organises them into ten questions encompassing teaching and learning strategies, curriculum coverage and various student characteristics, looking at how they relate to student achievement, mathematics instruction and to each other. Ten Questions aims to give teachers timely evidence-based insights that will help them reflect on their teaching strategies and how students learn.

Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers… and how PISA can help answer them
Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All

Webinar - Friday, October 7, 2016 9:30 am – 10:45 am ET
Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers… and How PISA Can Help Answer Them Presented by The Alliance for Excellent Education and OECD. 

Photo credit: © OECD

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Empowering teachers with high-quality professional development

by Fabian Barrera-Pedemonte
UCL Institute of Education and Thomas J. Alexander Fellow

Today marks World Teacher’s Day, which aims to address the challenge of mobilising a roadmap for teachers towards 2030. UNESCO acknowledges that a considerable intensification of effort is needed to provide sufficiently qualified, motivated and supported teachers. To underline the task ahead according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, countries will need to recruit a total of 12.6 million primary teachers by 2020. However, the question remains for policy makers is how can they provide for the demand and development of teachers while maintaining quality education? Teacher policies are complex and interdependent, and well-performing countries do not necessarily converge in this regard.

A new OECD working paper “High-Quality Teacher Professional Development and Classroom Teaching Practices: Evidence from TALIS 2013” advocates for more sensitive measures to capture the actual support experienced by teachers in the light of their professional development opportunities. It examines the association between crucial features of professional development and effective teaching practices across 35 countries and economies that participated in TALIS 2013.

Discussions between experts and stakeholders have looked at teachers’ annual participation in activities of professional development which, gives an indication of how much guidance and support they receive in their careers. However, research has shown that availability of in-service training is not the problem - it is the quality of training received that makes all of the difference. The challenge for policy makers is to identify and select the features of professional development that are more likely to modify and improve teaching practices.

The paper suggests that a global monitoring of the support given to teachers could measure the quality of teacher professional development as a key indicator of progress.

Certain features of teacher professional development are more important than others for the adoption of quality teaching practices. Curriculum focused development is clearly more related to the adoption of classroom practices than pedagogy and subject matter focused training. By stimulating collaboration between teachers, where they share and support their learning process, shows a systematically positive association with all reported teaching methods.

However, the findings also show that is not so much that one particular feature that makes a quality TPD programme, but rather a combination of characteristics. TPD that has an active learning approach, incorporates teacher from the same school, promotes collaboration between teachers, is carried out over the long term, and is curriculum focused was positively associated with the strategies carried out by teachers to improve students’ learning in practically all of the 35 countries and economies that participated in TALIS 2013. In general, these results suggest that the higher the exposure of teachers to high-quality TPD, the greater the chance they report using a wide variety of teaching methods in the classroom. Furthermore, this dimension is cross-culturally comparable, making it highly relevant when it comes to looking at contrasting countries with diverse historical and social development. 

This paper suggests the following policies for consideration for teacher professional development:

  • encouraging teachers’ engagement in curriculum-focused and collaborative learning activities or research with other teachers
  • developing strategies to monitor its quality  whilst ensuring national standards and assurance procedures
  • removing barriers due to gender or other factors  identified at the national or local level (e.g. ethnicity, types of schools, etc.)
  • ensuring that teachers who have not completed initial training are also exposed to high-quality support in this area.
Exposure to high quality teacher professional development varies greatly both between and within countries, which broadens the scope of work for policy makers. The global education agenda is undeniably ambitious and the teaching profession will be a key to fulfilling these goals for the benefit of societies worldwide.

OECD Education Working Paper No. 141: High-Quality Teacher Professional Development and Classroom Teaching Practices: Evidence from TALIS 2013

TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning
Photo credit: Vector illustration of poster to the World teacher's day on the gradient green background @Fotolia

Monday, September 26, 2016

Educating for Innovation and Innovation in Education

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

People have quite different views on the role that digital technology can and should play in schools. But we just can’t ignore how digital tools have so fundamentally transformed the world around schools. Students unable to navigate through our complex digital landscape are simply no longer able to participate in our social, economic and cultural life.

In the past, education was about teaching people something. Now, it’s about helping students develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world. These days, we no longer know exactly how things will unfold, often we are surprised and need to learn from the extraordinary, and sometimes we make mistakes along the way. And it will often be the mistakes and failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth.

A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last for a lifetime of their students. Today, schools need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that we do not yet know will arise.

The dilemma for educators is that the kind of skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test are also the skills that are easiest to digitise, automate and outsource. Half of the jobs that we know in OECD countries can already be carried out by digital technology. Put simply, the world no longer rewards people just for what they know – Google knows everything – but for what they can do with what they know. Because that’s the main differentiator today, education is becoming more about ways of thinking; involving creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and decision making; about ways of working, including communication and collaboration; about tools for working, and that includes not just the capacity to use technology but to recognise its potential for new ways of working; and, last but not least, it’s about the social and emotional skills that help people live and work together. Think about courage, integrity, curiosity, leadership, resilience or empathy.

All that demands new and innovative approaches to education where technology can no longer be on the margins of education but needs to be central to any solution.

I know teachers and school leaders are working hard to make this work. But our latest PISA results show that the reality in our schools lags considerably behind the promise of technology. In 2012, virtually all 15-year-old students in OECD countries had a computer at home, but less than three quarters used a computer or tablet at school, and in some countries it was fewer than half. In fact, the first thing we usually tell students entering their school is to turn off anything that has an on-or-off switch.

But far more importantly, even where computers are used in classrooms, their impact on student learning outcomes is mixed at best. Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes. Imagine that, the more intensively students use computers at school, the less digital literate they seem to be, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.

And perhaps the most disappointing finding is that technology seems of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and math seems still to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than subsidising access to high-tech devices and services.

So it’s clear that more of the same technology cannot be the answer. But it’s also clear that we need to get this right if we want to provide teachers with learning environments that support 21st-century pedagogies and, most importantly, if we want to provide children with the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world.

That’s why we have invited Education Ministers and industry leaders to come together in Israel for our second Global Summit on the Education Industry. Why Israel? Because it has such a vibrant startup culture in education where educators, entrepreneurs and policy makers aren’t afraid of each other but collaborate day after day for more innovative and productive educational solutions.

Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. Why should students be stuck with a textbook that was printed two years ago, and maybe designed ten years ago, when they can have access to the world’s best and most up-to-date information?

Technology also provides great platforms for collaboration in knowledge creation where teachers can share and enrich teaching materials. And indeed, if you look at the countries with the most technology-savvy students, they typically start with connecting teachers before pushing technology into classrooms.

But we also need to become much better at using technology to support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workspaces. Technology is our best bet to enhance experiential learning, foster project-based and inquiry-based pedagogies, facilitate hands-on activities and cooperative learning, deliver formative real-time assessment and support learning and teaching communities. And there are plenty of good examples around, such as remote and virtual labs, highly interactive courseware that builds on state-of-the-art instructional design, sophisticated software for experimentation and simulation, social media and serious games.

And all of this is isn’t just about 21st-century learning. The teachers of today’s “connected” learners are confronted with lots of related issues, from information overload to plagiarism, from protecting children from online risks like fraud, violations of privacy up to setting an appropriate media diet. We expect schools to educate our children to become critical consumers of Internet services and electronic media, to help them make informed choices. And we expect schools to raise awareness about the risks that children face on line and how to avoid them.

To better deliver on the promises which technology holds, countries will need convincing strategies to build teachers’ capacity. And policy-makers need to become better at building support for this agenda. Those are precisely the topics that we want to discuss at this summit.

Given the uncertainties that accompany all change, teachers will always favour the status quo. If we want to mobilise support for more technology-rich schools, we need to become better at communicating the need and building support for change. We need to invest in capacity development and change-management skills, develop sound evidence and feed this evidence back to institutions, and of course back all that up with sustainable financing.

And none of this is going to work without teachers becoming active agents for change, not just in implementing technological innovations, but in designing them too. One thing is clear, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology will never replace poor teaching.

This summit is a start for this and the OECD stands ready to support and facilitate the dialogue between Ministers and the Education Industry to take this discussion forward.

Innovating Education and Educating for Innovation: The Power of Digital Technologies and Skills
Global Education Industry Summit: September 26-27 2016, Israel
Photo credit: Innovation concept diagram illustration design over a white background @Shutterstock

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.