Spotlight on Far East as Shanghai enters at number one

10th December 2010 at 00:00

The Chinese province of Shanghai is the rising star of the OECD's Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey of education performance.

It took part in the two-hour tests of half a million pupils across more than 70 economies for the first time and topped the tables in reading, maths and science by a clear margin.

More than a quarter of Shanghai's 15-year-olds can conceptualise, generalise and creatively use information based in their own investigations and modelling of complex problem situations. They can apply insight and understanding and develop new approaches and strategies when addressing novel situations. In the OECD area, just 3 per cent of pupils reach that level of performance.

Shanghai province's results showed what could be achieved with moderate economic resources and a socially-diverse population.

Korea and Finland were the top-performing countries, as opposed to devolved nations, provinces or education systems. For the first time, the survey tested pupils' ability to manage digital information.

"Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth," said OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria. The findings were a warning to advanced economies that they could not take for granted that they would forever have "human capital" superior to that in other parts of the world, he added.

But the survey results also offered grounds for optimism. Countries from a variety of starting points have shown the potential to raise the quality of educational outcomes substantially.

Korea's average performance was already high in 2000, but Korean policymakers were concerned that only a narrow elite achieved levels of excellence in Pisa. Within less than a decade, Korea has doubled its share of pupils demonstrating excellence in reading literacy.

A major overhaul of Poland's school system has helped to achieve dramatic reductions in variable performance between schools, reducing the share of poorly-performing pupils and raising the overall performance by the equivalent of more than half a school year.

Germany was jolted into action when Pisa 2000 revealed a below-average performance and large social disparities in results, and has made progress on both fronts.

Chile, Israel and Poland made strong gains in reading literacy, although Portugal, Korea, Hungary and Germany also improved.

In mathematics, Mexico, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Germany saw rapid improvements. In science, the biggest improvements were achieved by Turkey, Portugal, Korea, Italy, Norway, the US and Poland.

Other findings include:

- Girls read better than boys in every country, by an average of 39 points, the equivalent of one year of schooling. The gender gap has not improved in any country since 2000, and has widened in France, Israel, Korea, Portugal and Sweden. This is mirrored by a decline of boys' enjoyment of reading and their engagement with reading in their leisure time;

- The best school systems were the most equitable - those where pupils do well regardless of their socio-economic background. But schools that select pupils based on ability early on show the greatest differences in performance by socio-economic background;

- High-performing school systems tend to prioritise teacher pay over smaller class sizes;

- Countries where pupils repeat grades more often tend to have worse results overall, with the widest gaps between children from poor and better-off families. Making pupils repeat years is most common in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain;

- High-performing systems allow schools to design their own curriculum and establish assessment policies, but don't necessarily allow competition for pupils;

- Public and private schools achieve similar results, after taking account of pupils' backgrounds;

- Combining local autonomy and effective accountability seems to produce the best results;

- The percentage of pupils who said they read for pleasure dropped from 69 per cent in 2000 to 64 per cent in 2009.

The Pisa authors suggest that the most impressive education systems "invest educational resources where they can make the greatest difference, they attract the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms, and they establish effective spending choices that prioritise the quality of teachers."

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