The arrival of new Pisa results focuses the minds of education secretaries around the world, encouraging them to look at where their reforms are having the greatest impact. Yet, until the end of the 20th century, those in charge of education systems rarely had an accurate understanding of whether they were achieving the desired outcomes. The reputation of systems depended on little more than history.
For example, Germany's system was widely considered to be among the best in the world until, in 2001, Pisa changed all that: the country, finding it was no better than average, suffered a "Pisa shock". On the other hand, Finland was surprised to find itself a high-flyer and was startled by the stream of visitors that arrived.
Educationalists across the globe now engage in continuing dialogue about education reform. None can afford to ignore the mounting evidence of what works and what doesn't. This fifth set of Pisa results revealed some startling outcomes:
- The dominance of Pacific Asian countries has strengthened further, with Shanghai in the lead and Singapore and Hong Kong close behind. Incredibly, given its recent history and income per capita, Vietnam now matches Germany.
- In Europe, Poland's rise and Germany's steady progress since the first Pisa report are evidence of applying lessons from the assessment over a sustained period.
- 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. Both are significantly ahead of Northern Ireland and Wales.
- The results reinforce other clear underlying messages. First, "talent" is a myth. A strong cultural commitment to the belief that effort will be rewarded - as seen in Pacific Asia - 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.
- 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 by both policymakers and school leaders.
- In addition, there are specific lessons to be learned about the nature and content of reform. We must do the following:
- Provide autonomy and accountability to schools. They need to go together; not one or the other but both.
- Invest in teachers. Recruiting great people to a well-paid profession and ensuring that they continually improve is vital. Crucially, systems need to make sure that the best teachers teach the most challenging students and the best principals 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 their low performers.
- Preschool works. Across the OECD, nations that invested in preschool performed significantly better than their peers.
- Persist. Several reform strategies work, but none will succeed without sustained pursuit over several years.
In essence, these lessons apply to everybody in education, not just to school or system leaders. The greatest challenge for education leaders is to have the courage to act on the evidence and improve our systems.
Sir Michael Barber is chief education adviser at Pearson and co-author with Saad Rizvi of The Incomplete Guide to Learning Outcomes.