Sir Michael Barber, chief education advisor at Pearson and co-author with Saad Rizvi of The Incomplete Guide to Learning Outcomes, writes:
The arrival of new Pisa results every three years focuses minds in education ministries around the world like nothing else. The objective data encourage ministers to take a fair view of their system’s performance and review which education reforms are having the greatest impact.
Yet, until the end of the 20th Century, education systems rarely had an accurate understanding of whether they were achieving the desired outcomes. The reputation of systems depended on history.
For example, Germany was widely considered to be among the best education systems, not least due to its strong educational tradition. Ultimately, we lacked a clear understanding of what characterised a successful system.
The first Pisa in 2001 changed all that – Germany found it was no more than average and suffered "Pisa shock". At the other end of the spectrum, Finland was surprised to find itself a high-flyer. The Finnish government were startled by the stream of visitors who came to try and work out what was going on.
The result is that education ministers and officials around the world now engage in continuous dialogue about education reform. None can afford to ignore the mounting evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Yes, they still worry about the media response, but more importantly they look for insight as to the way forward.
Today the fifth Pisa results, based on tests taken across 65 countries in 2012 and focusing primarily on maths, were published. There are some startling outcomes:
- The dominance of Pacific Asian countries has strengthened further, with Shanghai in the lead and Singapore and Hong Kong close behind. All three have improved significantly on already impressive performance. Incredibly, given its recent history and income per capita, Vietnam has also leaped into the limelight, matching, for example, Germany and Massachusetts, the leading state in the US.
- In Europe, Poland’s rise and Germany’s steady progress since the first Pisa are striking – the result of applying the lessons from Pisa over a sustained period.
- By contrast, Finland has slipped backwards, though it remains among the European leaders. The advocates of the Finnish model may need to begin to ask themselves some questions.
- The UK remains good rather than great, in spite of the different reform strategies being pursued among the four countries.
- Within the UK, Scotland is marginally ahead of England – though the difference is not statistically significant – and both are significantly ahead of Northern Ireland and Wales, which, after a wasted decade, only embarked on the path to reform in the last three years.
There are clear underlying messages from Pisa, which the new results reinforce:
First, talent is a myth. A strong cultural commitment not just to education, but also to the belief that effort will be rewarded makes a big difference. Those countries that believe some are born smart or bright while others aren’t, and reinforce that through the education system, will never be among the top performers. Pacific Asia’s focus on hard work over talent is one reason they lead the way.
Second, we need to focus on teaching and learning. Education leaders need to get inside the classroom and focus on the daily experience of teaching and learning. This is routinely ignored, both by policy makers (who focus on inputs such as class sizes or laptops) and by teacher leaders (who argue that their members should be left alone in their classrooms to do what they want).
In addition, there are specific lessons about the nature and content of reform:
- Provide autonomy and accountability. They need to go to together; not one or the other, but both.
- Invest in teachers. Recruiting great people into teaching and ensuring they get continuously better throughout their careers is vital. Once systems reach a certain level of national income, paying teachers well becomes more important. Crucially, systems need to make sure that the best teachers teach the most challenging students and the best headteachers lead the most challenging schools.
- Put every student on the agenda. It is possible and desirable for systems to simultaneously improve their top performers and low performers. Systems that allow a significant minority to reach age fifteen without the basics are creating problems for the future.
- Pre-school works. Across the OECD, those who invested in pre-school performed significantly better than their peers.
- Persist. There are several reform strategies that work, but none will succeed without sustained pursuit over several years.
Ultimately, these lessons can help systems understand how to combine the various inputs to deliver ever-better outcomes. Essentially, these lessons apply to everybody in education, not just schools or systems leaders. At Pearson, we have recently committed to measuring and reporting on the effect on learning outcomes of all our products and services
. We anticipate that the trend to focusing on outcomes and transparency is unstoppable.
The greatest challenge for education leaders now is to have the courage to act on evidence and improve the efficacy of our systems.