Rich-Nation Education Splurge Fails To Deliver Results

Rising levels of educational spending across leading industrial countries have failed to deliver any significant improvement in students’ core skills, according to an influential assessment of educational attainment. Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests, released on Tuesday, showed stagnation in the performance of 15-year-olds across OECD nations, despite an average increase in spending per student of 15 per cent over the past decade.

Schoolchildren in four districts of China, followed by those in Singapore and Taiwan, outperformed their peers in all other leading nations across reading, maths and science, while those from South Korea and Japan ranked just below their Asian neighbours in maths. This will reinforce the image of strong educational performance in the region compared with other parts of the world. The full Pisa rankings can be found at the end of this article. The Pisa analysis, released by the OECD every three years since the millennium, is widely used as a benchmark by policymakers and has sparked significant educational reforms in some countries. But it has been criticised for its methodology, with some saying the results can be over-interpreted.

The data will spark fresh discussion over the quality of education being delivered around the world, the extent to which money is being properly spent in schools and ways to better prepare young people for the changing needs of society and the workforce. Angel Gurría, OECD secretary-general, called the Chinese performance “remarkable” while adding that it was “disappointing” that there had been almost no improvement in student performance in OECD countries since 2000.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, said: “The world continues to change, but education systems are having a hard time keeping up with those changes.” He said much of the rise in spending had gone to “things not related to outcomes” such as smaller class sizes and teaching assistants. He called instead for greater investment in the quality of teaching and said in Estonia, where school starts at age 7, there was a strong emphasis on early learning, collaboration and making teaching an “intellectually attractive” profession.

Across the OECD, 24 per cent of students did not achieve minimum proficiency levels in maths and 12 per cent in reading, raising questions over a growing gap between capacities and skills sought by employers. Drawing comparable data from a wider selection of countries than made the formal Pisa rankings, the figures were less than 10 per cent in Zambia, Cambodia and Senegal. 

Across a sample of 600,000 students aged 15 in 79 countries tested using Pisa’s questions during 2018, those from the Chinese districts of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang scored best overall, surpassing Singapore, which was ranked top in 2015. The strongest countries outside Asia across reading, maths and science were Estonia, Canada and Finland. 

The Pisa analysis highlighted broader concerns for policymakers in schools, with a drop across OECD countries in the proportion of students reporting that they were satisfied with their lives to 67 per cent from 72 per cent in 2015, and almost a quarter saying they were bullied a few times a month.  Against a backdrop of growing concern over the expansion of online information and the growth in fake news, less than 9 per cent of students achieved sufficient reading levels to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion. Over the past decade, the share of students reading printed magazines and newspapers has shrunk sharply while those reading online news rose. 

Critics have long queried how representative is the statistical sampling of Pisa’s rankings, with China only including four regions in the tests and other countries excluding some groups of students from the results. Mr Gurría countered that each of the four Chinese districts alone was comparable in size to a typical OECD country. 

They have also warned against seeking to change policies to emulate top ranked school systems, questioning the relevance and comparability of the questions asked to students, an excessive focus on testing and the lack of any clear link between performance in Pisa and investment in education, class size or enthusiasm by students for their subject. 

Svein Sjoberg, professor emeritus at the University of Oslo, said: “There is a concern that Pisa is causing a lot of damage for recruitment to science . . . and at the political level, there are growing concerns about the ‘collateral damage’ caused.”  Studies by four countries that followed students who sat the first Pisa assessments showed those who performed better at age 15 were more likely to attain higher levels of education by the age of 25 and less likely to be out of the labour market entirely.

The OECD analysis also shows a broad link between the size of education budgets and performance, with some significant outliers.  However, education officials even in top performing countries such as Singapore and China have raised concerns that their systems fail to sufficiently nurture creativity or entrepreneurship and are experimenting with ways to broaden their curriculum and approach to teaching. They have raised concerns over stress and intensive tutoring of children.  Patrick Derham, headmaster of Westminster School in London, said the Pisa approach “can lead to a belief that short-term fixes can help improve a country’s education system whereas educational research clearly shows that meaningful change takes years if not decades.”

Source: The Nation.

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