It's the Olympics of education.
Early Tuesday morning, the OECD will release the latest results of its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the triannual survey of how 15-year-olds around the world are doing in math, reading and science. A lot rests on the shoulders of half a million teens. Since it began over a decade ago, the survey has become a key measure of education achievement internationally, its rankings increasingly used by politicians, business leaders and educators to tout successes and drive policy. When a country's scores drop, governments pour billions into controversial and sweeping education reforms. When they rise – as with South Korea or Hong Kong – researchers flock there to learn from their examples.
The stakes are high for Canada. The previous round of results, based on 2009 test scores, showed that the country had slipped slightly in the rankings, although we were still among the very top achievers. Now, competition from Asia, declining math scores nationally and a surprisingly poor showing from youth on a recent OECD literacy and numeracy test are leading to expectations that we will find ourselves further down the tables. Given investments in our public education system, Canadians should demand better results, said John Manley, CEO and president of the Council of Canadian Chief Executives, at a speech to the Canadian Club this week in Toronto.
Just ahead of the release, The Globe and Mail interviewed Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's deputy director for education and skills. As the man behind the tests, Mr. Schleicher has become one of the world's most influential figures in education, prodding education ministers to take action.
Why do you administer the PISA tests?
Well, in a global economy, the benchmark for educational success is no longer simply improvement by national standards, but the best-performing education systems internationally. PISA shows what is possible in education, in terms of the quality of learning outcomes, in terms of equity in the distribution of educational opportunities, and also in terms of value for money. These comparisons take away excuses from those who are complacent.
What are the changes you hope that education ministers will make as a result of these tests? What are you trying to accomplish here?
PISA has revealed a surprising number of features which the world's most successful school systems share and which education ministers can look at. For example, students in high-performing countries consistently say that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, which suggests that school systems and their social context can make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education. High performers … prioritize the quality of teachers over the size of classes. Think about it: In many countries, Canada included, significant resources have gone into making classes smaller. Parents like it, teachers like it, and ministers become very popular when they reduce class sizes. But then you look across borders and you find that most high-performing education systems have quite large classes and focused their resources instead on the quality of teachers, on paying teachers adequately, providing them with high-quality professional development, and with differentiated pathways to grow in their careers.
Is there too much focus on the league tables, on where countries rank?
I find league [tables] actually a very useful instrument to focus the debate and to help us identify where the key challenges are. And in the end, it's hard to improve what you cannot measure. I disagree with those who believe that league tables stand in the way of improving education, in the same way that you won't improve sports by getting rid of the Olympics. [They] can become quickly counterproductive and distortive when we use them primarily to track and penalize failure. For example, trying to find and get rid of the poorest performing teachers tends to become a time and energy trap and in the end, everyone will hate evaluation.
Is it the place of the OECD to rank countries that have such different levels of development?
You can argue that it's not fair to compare the results of a student from a poor family background with the results of a student from a well-off family, and that it's not fair to compare results across countries that operate in very different social and economic contexts. … [National] income now only explains 6 per cent of the performance differences among nations. So the world is no long-er divided into rich and well-educated and poor and badly educated ones. When you look at the results from PISA, you'll be surprised how many emerging economies do well in education, because their leaders have convinced their citizens to value education, their future, more than consumption today. And you'll be surprised how many educational leaders of the past have lost their place in the league tables.
This interview has been edited and condensed.