(Learning) time is on their side

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Education and Skills Directorate

Got a minute? How about 218 of them? That’s the average amount of time students in OECD countries spend in mathematics class each week (although to some, it feels like an eternity). Spare a thought, though, for students in Chile: they spend about twice that amount of time (400 minutes, or 6 hours and 40 minutes) each week in maths class. But who’s counting?

Actually, PISA is. PISA 2012 asked students to report how much time they spend in their mathematics, reading and science classes – the three core subjects PISA assesses. PISA wanted to find out whether students are spending more or less time in class than their counterparts did a decade ago, and whether there is any relationship to the amount of time spent in class and student performance.

As this month’s PISA in Focus reports, across OECD countries, 15-year-old students spent an average of 13 minutes more per week in mathematics classes in 2012 than they did in 2003. PISA found that mathematics classes in all types of schools – public and private, advantaged and disadvantaged, lower and upper secondary, urban and rural – were longer in 2012 than they were in 2003. Students in Canada and Portugal spent 1.5 hours more per week in maths class than their counterparts did in 2003, while students in Norway, Spain and the United States spent at least half an hour more.

PISA also found that students in schools where more time is spent teaching mathematics tend to perform better in the PISA mathematics test. In fact, the net pay-off for mathematics performance from attending one of these schools is an average of 12 score points (the equivalent of roughly a trimester of schooling) per extra hour of mathematics instruction per week.

But if more is better in this case, then socio-economically disadvantaged students are missing out. This is particularly true for science lessons. Across OECD countries, students in disadvantaged schools spend 36 minutes less in science class than their peers in more advantaged schools. And in Argentina, Japan and Chinese Taipei, students in disadvantaged schools spend at least 76 minutes less in maths classes than students in advantaged schools, on average.

Of course, time is also measured in quality; and if those extra minutes in maths class are not filled with engaging curricula taught by innovative, supportive and motivated teachers, then more time is just a waste of time.

Photo Credit:Mathematical Clock With Mathematical Calculations Instead Of Numbers For The Hours @Shutterstock

Denmark: Still worth getting to

by Craig Willy
Freelance Journalist, SGI News

An open, liberal economy combined with redistribution and social welfare: The Danish model has largely weathered the storm of the financial and euro crises. Yet, when looking at education and integration, not all is rosy in the Kingdom of Denmark.

Denmark has long been a byword for good government, liberal democracy, and social equity of the highest levels in the world. The little Nordic country’s success has been such that the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama – of “end of history” fame – has said that the goal of politics is “getting to Denmark.” In this, the Denmark report of the recently published Bertelsmann Stifung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) notes that: “Trust between different actors and societal groups, often referred to as ‘social capital,’ has also been an important factor.” Indeed, the country is famously free of corruption, Transparency International rating Denmark the least corrupt country in the world together with New Zealand.

Many countries have faced difficulties maintaining existing social models and levels of well-being in the face of the challenges of economic globalization and demographic change. Denmark is no exception, but as the 2015 SGI report shows, the country has largely maintained its success, despite some emerging problems. The country rates highly in most policy and governance areas, whether on the environment, economics, or democracy.

The most immediate challenge to Denmark has been on the economic front. The Danish model combining an open, liberal economy with significant redistribution and social welfare has largely weathered the storm of the financial and euro crises. This is no minor achievement given Denmark’s standards, as the SGI report notes: “The hallmark of Danish society – and other Nordic countries – has been to balance low inequality and an extensive public sector with a well-functioning economy and high income level.”

Unemployment, while not yet having returned to the amazing pre-crisis level of 3.4%, has fallen to 6.6%, one of the lowest rates in the European Union. In 2014, public debt amounted to 45.2% of GDP and growth reached 1.1%. The country then has some admirably positive economic metrics in a global context where many developed countries are struggling to return to lasting growth and fiscal sustainability. The Danish model of “flexicurity” appears to be reliably adaptive.

The long-term financial prospects of Denmark are also fairly positive thanks to better-than-average demographic trends. The fertility rate rose to almost 1.7 last year, distinctly above average for a developed country. This appears to have been achieved thanks to significant government support, including social benefits for children and families amounting to 4.2% of GDP – the highest in the European Union – and sometimes highly-unorthodox public awareness campaigns (one of the most recent of which was the “Do It for Denmark” advertising campaign, which advised Danish couples to take a holiday to increase lovemaking, complete with free baby goodies to be handed out if conception were to occur).

Denmark’s dark spots: education and integration

A rare dark spot has been Denmark’s mediocre educational performance. While the country is a top education spender, performance as measured by PISA is very average. Indeed, the SGI gives Denmark an education policy score of just 6, one of its weakest areas. Despite this, Denmark remains strong on research and innovation, 3.1% of GDP to R&D, one third of which provided by government spending, and having among the most researchers and patent applications in the world.

Another weak point is the integration of migrants and their descendants, a major threat insofar as failure would lead to inequality and social fragmentation. As the SGI report notes: “Danish society is trending toward more disparity and inequality. This applies to immigrants as well as groups who are marginalized in the labor market, often due to insufficient job qualifications.” There is also some evidence that Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s observation of ethnic diversity reducing social trust is also occurring in famously-trusting Denmark.

Indeed, Denmark, like many other developed countries, has had significant difficulties in integrating some migrant groups and their descendants. The SGI report notes: “a number of immigrants in Denmark, especially from non-Western countries, have problems integrating.” In 2014, some 626,000 immigrants and their descendants lived in Denmark, about 11.1% of the population.

Integration problems are evident in numerous policy areas. On Denmark’s otherwise highly-successful labor policies, the SGI report notes: “The main challenge Denmark faces is getting more immigrants, and to some extent older people, into the job market.” The unemployment rate for migrants is twice as high for native-born. The gap has however generally been shrinking.

On education, the report notes: “[Im]migrant students score markedly lower than Danish students, a problem particularly pronounced among boys.” There has been improvement however:

Concerning educational achievements, immigrants and their descendants – especially girls – are making progress. In 2013, for the age group 30 to 39 about 47% of men and 64% of women had completed a labor market qualifying education. The corresponding numbers for ethnic Danes are 72% and 80%. For those 22 years old 49% of male and 61% of female non-western descendants are in education, which is only two and three percentage points below the corresponding rates for ethnic Danes.

Some intergenerational progress is then evident for migrants, although the extent to which governments will further succeed in closing gaps is an open question.

Denmark is a relatively closed country to immigration, family reunification having been curtailed in 2004. The June 2015 elections saw the populist and anti-immigration Danish People’s Party (DF) emerge as the single-biggest vote winner, but paradoxically they gave their support for a moderate, center-right government under Venstre (the liberals). Integration measures taken by the previous center-left government are likely to be curtailed and anti-immigration policies can be expected for the government to appease the populists.

All is then not rosy in the Kingdom of Denmark. But on the whole, the Danes remain one of the most prosperous, egalitarian, free, ecological, and well-governed nations in the world, despite the numerous challenges of globalization. “Getting to Denmark,” remains a valid objective for most countries in the world, although few have achieved it!

Craig Willy is an EU affairs writer. His blog is available here.

Photo Credit:Group Of Friends On Walk Balancing On Tree Trunk In Forest @Shutterstock

What are the risks of missing out on upper secondary education?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Percentage of 16-29 year-olds at or below numeracy proficiency level 1,
by education attainment, 2012

In just a couple of decades, upper secondary schooling has been transformed from a vehicle towards upward social mobility into a minimum requirement for life in modern societies.

The most recent OECD data on educational attainment show that in OECD countries in 2013, 34% of 55-64 year-olds but 16% of 25-34 year-olds did not have an upper secondary education. In other words, over 30 years the share of low-educated adults has been cut in half. But progress is slowing. While education systems continue to expand tertiary education, many countries are struggling to further reduce the share of young people without upper secondary education. Some young people seem to have lost faith in the capacity of school to improve their lives; others become demotivated by the perceived lack of relevance of what they learn in schools. But these students are almost certainly underestimating the risks of dropping out of school.

The latest Education Indicators in Focus brings together some of the evidence in Education at a Glance on the benefits of acquiring an upper secondary education. The chart above, based on an analysis of data collected by the Survey of Adult Skills (a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC), shows the magnitude of the gap between 16-29 years-olds with an upper secondary education and those without in the probability of ending up with poor numeracy proficiency. While having a tertiary education further reduces the probability of having low numeracy skills, the gap is less significant. On average across countries that participated in the survey, at least 29% of dropouts do not reach the minimum level proficiency in numeracy. Having an upper secondary education cuts that probability by more than half, to 13%. This gap is particularly wide in Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The poor skills associated with a lack of upper secondary education have an impact far beyond the walls of any classroom. For example, across OECD countries, 28% of 16-29 year-olds not in education are unemployed (in Greece, Hungary, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Spain, over 40% of this group are unemployed). An upper secondary education reduces the risk of unemployment for this age group to 16%. Meanwhile, 25-34 year-olds without an upper secondary education earn 17% less than adults the same age who do have upper secondary education, and this earnings gap has widened in recent years. In addition, 79% of adults (25-64 year-olds) with upper secondary education reported being in good health, but only 65% of adults without that level of education and 59% of adults whose lack of upper secondary education is combined with poor literacy skills reported so.

Upper secondary education also works as a springboard to continuing education and lifelong learning. In the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), 47% of adults with upper secondary education reported participating in formal and/or non-formal education, but only 27% of adults without that level of education reported so. When combined with poor literacy proficiency, the share shrank to only 21%. Without an upper secondary education, the desire for learning and the foundation skills needed to benefit from lifelong learning appear to be weaker.

One could argue that when countries reduce the numbers of dropouts, the relative risks for those who do drop out increase. But the data show that this is not necessarily the case. Canada, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland all combine relatively small shares of low-educated 25-34 year-olds with relatively modest unemployment rates in that age group.

Completing upper secondary school  has become a kind of threshold to the rest of life, and greater opportunities await those who make it across. Unfortunately, there are not many alternatives. Second-chance education opportunities are relatively rare and hard to access, and workplace training and lifelong education are not readily available for those who missed the boat earlier in life. The message couldn’t be simpler: if you want to reap the benefits of education, let education propel you across the threshold.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 34, by Markus Schwabe and Éric Charbonnier 
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm 
Chart Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance database

What do youth think?

Interview with Allan Päll Secretary General of the European Youth Forum

by Marilyn Achiron, Editor, Education and Skills Directorate

This is a tough time for young people, especially in Europe. Youth un- and underemployment is still at record highs in some countries; and as the OECD Skills Outlook 2015 reports, more than 35 million 16-29 year-olds in OECD countries are neither employed nor in education or training. More worrying still, around half of those young adults are out of school and not looking for work. What can be done to change these terrible statistics, to prevent more waste of human potential? We spoke with Allan Päll, Secretary General of the European Youth Forum, when he was in Paris to participate in the OECD Forum in June.

Marilyn Achiron: Older adults dictate to young people all the time. What do young people feel is missing from education that could make the transition from school to the labour market easier?

Allan Päll: Young people want to have options and choices that are real and that they can control themselves. A lot of young people despair because they’re not being encouraged, they’re not given the space, to participate in decision making. For example, in education, the way education is conducted is often prescribed by somebody else. In terms of access to the labour market, young people are often offered the kinds of jobs that do not really take into account the opinions of young people. So if you get an internship, it’s often for some mundane task, not really valuing your experience or your aspirations.

M.A: Are education systems not teaching the right skills from the earliest ages?

A.P: It’s more about school environment. It’s not only about content; it’s about how you do things in education. If the education system is very stratified – poor people to poor schools; rich people to private schools; or sorting young people based on their attainment or aspirations – that’s where we create a lot of problems. We create an artificial world in school, which is then replicated in society. We need to break down those barriers. If you learn in a multicultural environment and the learning itself is more participatory, where young people are given the responsibility to have a study project, to carry it through, to describe their own learning objectives, then we will empower them.

M.A: You said that you don’t think governments are doing enough to bring young people in to decision-making processes. Does that include education?

A.P. We’re seeing more positive developments in higher education. We see more collaboration between young people and teachers, and sometimes we see businesses coming in when it comes to curricula. But in traditional European universities, at the governance level, where money is being allocated, that’s where students are being kicked out in favour of a more corporatist system. I don’t think it’s harmful [to show] young people that there is a bridge [between business and education]. Employers and business are a value to our society; they provide jobs, services, products. It’s important for young people to understand how this works and maybe to study that. You need to have some sort of a connection. But the governance of education is a different question. Curricular development should be more left to teachers and students to decide.

M.A: What kind of education should young people be pursuing: general or specialised?

A.P: I think it’s a bit of a Catch-22. Sometimes, to get into the labour market, you need to have a specialised education, because in some professions, that’s where the jobs are available and access to them is restricted to professional education. But then again, in 10 years’ time, maybe those professions won’t exist anymore. So what is crucial is that everybody has a critical mindset, and everybody has a willingness to learn throughout their lives. Those are the two things we need to develop. I don’t agree with the people who say we don’t need to learn content or facts; if you don’t know about history you won’t be able to have a critical perspective.

M.A: What about learning those things through the Internet?

A.P: Well, the Internet doesn’t teach you things, does it? It’s full of information and is growing every day. I may have the capacity to search for what I want, but I need to know first if there is something I want out there. And for that, I need some basic knowledge about something to be able to question it. It’s about balance, not going to one or the other extreme.

M.A: If you had a child of your own now, what kind of school would you like him or her to attend?

A.P: I would want my children to go to an educational institution that is multicultural, non-discriminatory and where children are able to set their own objectives and then measure up to that, not measure up to everybody else’s objectives and standards. I think that kind of encouragement to set your own goals and learn accordingly also needs to be in the home and more widely in society.


Photo Credit: Businessman on the hot-air balloon looking for new business @Shutterstock