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National Standards Are No Longer Enough

This post is by Andreas Schleicher.

There have been amazing changes in the composition of global talent. Two generations ago, the United States was ahead of everyone else in terms of the share of people leaving education with at least a high school degree. Today's economic success of the U.S. builds in part on its educational record. At the same time, while the U.S. was first in the 1950s, it was 13th in 2000. That was not because standards have fallen, but because they have risen so much faster elsewhere.

Korea shows what is possible. Two generations ago, Korea had the standard of living of Afghanistan and was among the lowest educational performers. Today, virtually every Korean finishes high school. So in a global economy, the benchmark for educational success is no longer improvement by national standards alone, but by the best performing school systems internationally.

The trouble with measuring educational success by how much time people spent in school or what degree they've got is that this isn't always a good indicator for what they are actually able to do. The toxic mix of unemployed graduates and employers who say that they cannot find workers with the skills they need is a solemn reminder of that. It tells us that better degrees don't automatically translate into better skills, better jobs, and better lives.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tried to shift the focus of measurement by testing the skills of fifteen-year-olds directly. And, it took a special angle. PISA is less interested in whether students can reproduce what they learned, but asks students to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge in novel situations. This is less about subject matter content and more about creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. PISA shows not only vast differences in the knowledge and skills of students across countries, but also that the pace of improvement differs markedly.

International comparisons give us some clues as to what makes school systems succeed. What we've learned from PISA is that the leaders in high performing systems have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education, their future, more than consumption today. Another part is the belief in the possibilities for all children to achieve. In many countries different students are taught in similar ways. Top school systems embrace diversity with differentiated instructional practices; they realize that ordinary students have extraordinary talents and personalize educational experiences. High performing school systems also share clear and ambitious standards across the board. Everyone knows what is required to get a given qualification.

And nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems pay attention to how they select and train their staff. They watch how they improve the performance of teachers who are struggling and how to structure teachers' pay. They provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice. And they provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers. The most impressive outcome of world class school systems is perhaps that they deliver high quality across the entire school system so that every student benefits from excellent learning. These countries invest resources where they can make most of a difference, they attract the strongest principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms.

People sometimes say that changing educational administrations is like moving graveyards; you just can't rely on the people out there to help you. But global comparisons help us to set meaningful targets in terms of measurable goals achieved by the world's educational leaders. These data aren't just about improved transparency and public accountability. Throwing education data into the public space does not change the ways in which students learn, teachers teach, and schools operate. This is about getting out of the inward-looking "read-only" mode of our education systems.

Andreas Schleicher is the deputy director for education and skills and a special adviser on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).
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