Between a Schoolhouse Rock and a Hard Place

In both developed and developing countries, governments are trying to figure out the vital components of a successful education system. Partially, this stems from the rate of return on education, with as little as 8.5% in OECD for primary education to 25.4% in Sub-Saharan Africa for primary education as reported by the World Bank, though some of these figures are disputed. The solutions range from teacher accountability through standardized tests to competition from private schools. Some trends have been emerging from the data, and common themes are starting to become apparent.

 

Top 10 countries in categories according to PISA

Recently, the OECD came out with the results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a cross-country test comparing the results in math, science, and reading of 15-year-old students. PISA is taken every 3 years in all 34 OECD countries, along with 31 developing countries who wish to participate, such as Jordan, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Indonesia, among others. The stark results from this year was the drop of Finland and the rise of the East Asian states. Meanwhile, a number of developed countries underperformed the average, including the United States and Sweden. The mean score for OECD countries ended up being 494, with Shanghai-China attaining 613 and Peru propping up the table with 368.

 

Test scores and economic growth vs. years of education and economic growth.

PISA has found certain elements in school systems to be correlated with higher educational outcomes through test scores. High-performing school systems are more likely to distribute resources more evenly between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged areas. The better performers also tend to give more autonomy to schools, principals, and teachers over curricula and assessments than the lower performing schools. Better school systems also recruit and retain high quality teachers through higher salaries and more autonomy, although the correlation only works for countries with GDP per capita over $20,000. Finally, the less stratification there is in classes, by tracking gifted students into a separate track, the better the school test scores are.

Other reports from various academics tend to corroborate the data that OECD has been producing. Eric Hanushek and Ludwig Woessman have done a large amount of research using PISA and data from other test scores. They found that 73% of variation between test scores is down to educational quality, with a higher effect in countries below the median GDP per capita. This effect is also magnified through the openness of trade withing a country. Over a long time horizon, a 20 year reform leads to 5% higher GDP, with the effect over 75 years after the room resulting in a 36% higher GDP than without the reform. Meanwhile, the effect of dollars spent or number of years of schooling have little to no effect on educational outcomes.

 

Finnish primary education classroom

The question then turns to the factors that improve educational quality. Charles Kenny found that an increase in school autonomy over budgets, hiring teachers, and course content improves scores on average 17 points, which would be a big swing for most countries. Adding a couple hours of instruction, assessments for student promotion, and monitoring by principals for lessons makes scores leap 42 points, which would be almost a 10% improvement for the OECD average. This highlights the how autonomy and accountability complement each other. Private schools have also been shown to improve schooling in Indiaand Kenya, though other reports on private voucher programs in Chile and Catholic schools in the United States show no effect. The idea from these mixed results is that private schooling in countries with weak public institutions could benefit from private schools while in developed countries its questionable.

 

Growth and education reform

A final factor on improving educational quality is equity. Another study by Hanushek and Woessman showed that the earlier that tracking, or placing students into different classes or schools based on ability level, the more inequality there is in the system. As family socio-economic background is one of the major determinants of educational attainment, Hanushek and Woessman show that background is negated the longer that there is no tracking. This partially why Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, has been emphasizing that the Finnish school system reformed decades ago to make education more equitable. Subsequently, test scores improved.

Education and its effect on human capital is probably one of the most important factors in development. Slowly, we are moving away from the model of just building schools, and realize that the quality of instruction also matters. In different circumstances, pre-primary education, choice in schools, autonomy, and equality have all been shown to have some impact in multiple countries. Now it’s simply a matter of determining which course of action is the best and for what circumstance.

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