Are the world’s schools making inequality worse?

by William Schmidt
Distinguished Professor, Michigan State University

The answer appears to be yes. Schooling plays a surprisingly large role in short-changing the most economically disadvantaged students of critical math skills, according to a study published today in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Unequal access to rigorous mathematics content is widening the gap in performance on a prominent international math literacy test between low- and high-income students in countries worldwide.

Using data from PISA 2012, researchers from Michigan State University and the OECD confirmed not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the gap in math performance between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students is related to those curriculuar inequalities.

The authors—William H. Schmidt, Nathan Burroughs, and Richard Houang, all of Michigan State University, and Pablo Zoido, from the OECD – found that in almost every one of the 62 countries examined a significant amount was added to the social class-related performance gap because of what students studied in schools. The 2012 PISA was the first international study to include student-level indicators of exposure to math content. The authors relied on data from more than 300,000 students, who ranged in age from 15 years and 3 months to 16 years and 2 months.

“Our findings support previous research by showing that affluent students are consistently provided with greater opportunity to learn more rigorous content, and that students who are exposed to higher-level math have a better ability to apply it to real-world situations of contemporary adult life, such as calculating interest, discounts, and estimating the required amount of carpeting for a room,” said Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor of Statistics and Education at Michigan State University. “But now we know just how important content inequality is in contributing to performance gaps between priviledged and underpriviledged students.”

On average, across the 33 OECD countries studied, roughly a third of the relationship of socio-economic status (SES) to math literacy was due to inequalities in math coverage, with sizeable variation across countries, ranging from nearly 58 percent in the Netherlands to less than 10 percent in Iceland and Sweden.

There are striking differences in how countries group their students and structure their instructional opportunities, meaning that in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States there are greater within-school inequalities in content coverage, while in other countries such as France, Germany, and Japan inequalities are larger between schools.

Regardless of whether unequal learning opportunities for lower-income students were found within or between schools, they exacerbated inequitable student outcomes.

“Because of differences in content exposure for low- and high-income students in each country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” said Schmidt. “The belief that schools are the great equalizer, helping students overcome the inequalities of poverty, is a myth.”

Andreas Schleicher from the OECD and the Director of PISA, confirmed the results. He said: “The research confirms what PISA’s international test results have been telling us for more than a decade: in order for every child to perform to the best of his or her ability in school, teachers and schools have to believe that all children can succeed – and act on that belief.”

Support for this work was provided through the Thomas J. Alexander Fellowship which was funded by 
the Open Society Foundations

Chart: Percentage of total socio-economic inequality contributed by unequal access to rigorous mathematics © 2015 AERA.  

Spain’s future prosperity depends on skills

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Spain is emerging from a challenging period. The good news is that the economy has returned to moderate growth and unemployment rates are falling. Yet Spain’s progress along the path to inclusive growth may well falter if steps are not taken today to boost skills outcomes.

Looking beyond today’s headlines lies the knowledge-based global economy of the future powered by skills and human capital. Without concerted efforts to improve Spain’s capacity to develop, activate and effectively use people’s skills, its companies will struggle to move up the global value chain and generate new jobs – while workers of all ages will be poorly equipped for fast-paced and innovative workplaces, and increasingly vulnerable to low-paid work or unemployment.

Yet skills affect more than just earnings and employment. Data from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) show that in all participating countries, including Spain, adults with lower literacy proficiency are far more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to perceive themselves as objects rather than actors in political processes, and to place less trust in others. Put simply, a lack of proficiency in foundation skills prevents people from fully participating in society and democracy.

Spain is at a turning point. Now is the time to fully harness Spain’s economic potential, by developing the highly skilled workforce needed to support entrepreneurship, drive innovation and productivity while delivering inclusive growth for all.

Identifying skills challenges, together

In the course of 2014 and 2015, a multidisciplinary team of OECD experts worked in collaboration with seven Spanish ministries, all autonomous communities and a wide range of stakeholders to assess the challenges to building a more effective national skills strategy for Spain. Maintaining and building upon this unique whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach will be critical for addressing the challenges identified in the resulting OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Spain.

Over the past decades, Spain has made significant progress in increasing participation in early childhood education and raising educational attainment levels. A number of recent reforms have aimed to improve school completion and student performance while also expanding participation in vocational education and training and building smoother pathways from education to the world of work. Spain has also introduced significant labour market reforms to reduce duality, increase flexibility and stimulate employment growth while enhancing the fiscal framework and boosting the business sector. State and regional governments have collaborated to achieve progress in all of these areas as well as in improving Spain’s science, technology and innovation system.

Yet challenges remain

Spain needs to continue its focus on improving the quality of skills developed while ensuring that they are relevant to the needs of the economy. Greater efforts are needed to reach out to the almost ten million Spanish adults with low levels of skills, who are vulnerable to displacement by technology and foreign competition. Reducing the early school leaving rate – which despite recent significant improvements remains the highest in the EU – can help to ensure that in the future more adults have the skills the need for success in the economy and society. At the same time, Spain needs to stimulate job growth and facilitate faster returns to work to ensure that the skills people develop are put to effective use – and to reduce skills atrophy that people experience when unemployed for long periods of time. Once in the workforce, workers need to be making greater use of their skills to drive productivity and innovation.

Spain’s 12 skills challenges 

Today, the results of the diagnostic phase of this collaborative project are published as the OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Spain. At a launch event organised in Madrid, the main findings will be discussed by senior representatives drawn from participating ministries, the OECD and the European Commission in the presence of many stakeholders who took part in this journey to map Spain’s skills challenges.

With regard to developing relevant skills, the report concludes that Spain should focus its efforts on:

  • Improving the skills of students in compulsory education.
  • Ensuring that tertiary students develop high quality and job-relevant skills.
  • Improving the skills of low-skilled adults.

When it comes to activating its skills supply, Spain will need to tackle the challenges of:

  • Removing regulatory and tax barriers to hiring and worker activation.
  • Reintegrating unemployed people through targeted activation strategies.
  • Improving the transition of youth from education to stable employment.

Furthermore, Spain could make more effective use of the skills it has by:

  • Making full use of skills in the workplace to strengthen productivity and competitiveness.
  • Leveraging highly skilled individuals and universities to foster innovation and increase productivity and growth.

Finally, Spain could strengthen its overall skills system by: 

  • Improving and expanding access to high quality learning and labour market information.
  • Strengthening partnerships to improve skills outcomes.
  • Financing a more effective and efficient skills system.
  • Strengthening governance of the skills system.

Taking action on skills

The need for a whole of government approach to skills emerges clearly in the case of Spain. None of these skills challenges can be tackled by ministries working in isolation, nor can they be solved by government alone. Spain’s stakeholders and civil society will need to play a more active role in developing and implementing skills policies that deliver sustainable results over the long term.

Moving from diagnosis to action will require close coordination and greater efforts to measure progress and ensure accountability for results. In doing so, the OECD stands ready to support Spain as it designs and implements better skills policies for better jobs and better lives.

OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Spain
OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Spain (Spanish version)
OECD Press Release: Spain's future prosperity depends on raising skill levels and removing barriers to employment
OECD Press Release: El futuro prospero de espana pasa por mejorar el nivel de competencias de la poblacion y eliminar los obstaculos a la creacion de empleo
Executive Summary (English)
Executive Summary (Spanish)
OECD Skills Strategy
Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
OECD Skills Outlook 2015: Youth, Skills and Employability
For more on skills and skills policies around the world, visit:
See also the country page on skills for Spain
Photo credit: Large group of people gathered together in the shape of growing graph arrow @Shutterstock

Classroom practices and teachers’ beliefs about teaching

by Katarzyna Kubacka
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Every September, classrooms in the Northern hemisphere reopen to students and teachers for a new school year. What can students expect from their teachers this year? The new Teaching in Focus brief: Teaching beliefs and practice sheds light on some of the most common teaching practices and what teachers in Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) believe is the nature of teaching and learning.

Most teachers across TALIS systems see learning as a process where students are actively engaged in gaining knowledge and constructing meaning (in line with a constructivist view on teaching), as opposed to a process where students are passive recipients of information. For example, more than 90% of teachers see their role as a facilitator of their student’s own inquiry. These beliefs support the importance of independent and critical thinking, and students’ active construction of meaning.

However, when teachers are asked about their most frequently used teaching practices, more passive rather than more active teaching methods emerge on top. For instance, 74% of teachers report frequently presenting a summary of recently learned content (a more passive practice), while only 50% of teachers frequently give students work in small groups (a more active practice). This indicates that in many classrooms teachers are relying on more traditional practices where students are passive recipients of knowledge, rather than using a balanced mix of passive and active teaching methods. It shows a missed opportunity to let students practice tasks that require critical thinking or team work, skills that are sought after in the labour market and necessary for success in the 21st Century.

What are the factors that support teachers’ use of active methods? TALIS results show that collaborative professional development, such as participation in a network of teachers, mentoring or collaborative research, are some of the factors which can be associated with the more frequent use of small group work or projects that take students more than a week to complete. Collaborative professional development can facilitate teachers exchanging information on which active practices are effective and under what conditions, thus helping teachers interact and learn from each other across different disciplines.

In addition, classroom factors matter – classrooms with a positive climate are also the ones where active teaching practices occur more often. This might signal that active teaching can help build a more positive climate, or that such positive climates make the use of active teaching more likely, thereby initiating a virtuous cycle. Many teachers need to sacrifice big chunks of learning and classroom teaching time to administrative tasks and order-keeping, which could be another reason why they are not able to invest time and energy in more active teaching methods.

TALIS shows that teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning and their classroom practices do not always go hand in hand. But beyond this diagnosis, TALIS also suggests that support for teachers’ professional development, especially in terms of collaborative activities, is only one way that can help to close the gap between teaching beliefs and practices. Systems should also consider to what extent classroom factors (such as classroom climate) impact the choice of teaching practices and focus their efforts on these policy levers as well.

The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survery (TALIS)
A Teacher's Guide to TALIS 2013
Photo credit: High School Students With Teacher In Class Using Laptops @Shutterstock

Students, computers and learning: Where’s the connection?

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Totally wired. That’s our image of most 15-year-olds and the world they inhabit. But a new, ground-breaking report on students’ digital skills and the learning environments designed to develop those skills, paints a very different picture. Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection finds that, despite the pervasiveness of information and communication technologies (ICT) in our daily lives, these technologies have not yet been as widely adopted in formal education. And where they are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed, at best. This month’s PISA in Focus bores down deeper into the report to reveal a persistent disconnect between some students’ ability to read on paper and their ability to read on line.

PISA 2012 created a simulated browser environment, with websites, tabs and hyperlinks, in order to assess not only students’ reading performance, but also their web-browsing behaviour. Not surprisingly, the report finds that it is not possible for students to excel in online reading without being able to understand and draw correct inferences from print texts too. The top-performing countries/economies in the PISA assessment of online reading were Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Canada and Shanghai-China – which also were among the top performers in the print reading test.

But there’s more to digital reading than deciphering and comprehending text. Why are students in some countries/economies – notably Australia, Canada, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and the United States, among others – far better at reading digital texts than students in other countries/economies who score similarly in the print reading test? Because, PISA finds, they know how to navigate their way through and across digital texts.

On average, students in Singapore, followed by students in Australia, Korea, Canada, the United States and Ireland, rank the highest for the quality of their web-browsing behaviour. They assess which links to follow before clicking on them, and follow relevant links for as long as is needed to solve the given reading problem. But in Macao-China, Shanghai-China and Chinese Taipei, as many as one in five students visits more task-irrelevant pages than task-relevant ones. These students are persistent in their efforts, but they are digitally adrift. And across OECD countries, one in ten students showed only limited or no web-browsing activity, signalling a lack of basic computer skills, a lack of familiarity with web browsing or a lack of motivation.

As the results from the report show, the connections among students, computers and learning are neither simple nor hard-wired; and the real contributions ICT can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realised and exploited. But as long as computers and the Internet have a central role in our personal and professional lives, students who have not acquired basic skills in reading, writing and navigating through a digital landscape will find themselves dangerously disconnected from the economic, social and cultural life around them.

Back – and looking ahead – to school

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s that time of year; and as sure as there are new pencil cases on desks, pristine notebooks in backpacks and fresh textbooks with nary a wrinkle up their spines, there’s a new batch of OECD reports ready to inform and challenge your thinking about education.

We’re particularly excited about a new PISA reportStudents, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, scheduled to be published on 15 September. If you thought all 15-year-olds knew everything there was to know about navigating their way around the web, or if you’re concerned that your child’s school is falling behind because it isn’t sufficiently “wired”, the findings of this report may surprise you.

The OECD’s Innovative Learning Environments project is poised to release a new book in October examining how some countries have moved from thinking about making their education systems more innovative to actually doing so – and changed some well-entrenched attitudes and approaches towards teaching and learning in the process.

Our annual compilation of education statistics, Education at a Glance, will be published a little later than usual this year – 24 November instead of right around now – to accommodate significant changes in how countries around the world classify and report on different levels of education. It will be worth the wait, though, as the new classifications allow us to gather even more detailed information about who participates in education, particularly in preschool and university-level education. This year, there will also be new data on the impact of skills on employment and earnings, on adults’ readiness to use information and communication technology for problem solving in their jobs, and on salaries for university-level faculty, to cite just a few of the topics covered in this authoritative mega-book.

In the middle of this flurry of publications, the OECD, together with the European Commission and the Government of Finland will hold a Global Education Industry Summit in Helsinki on 19 and 20 October. The aim of the meeting is to bring together ministers of education, innovators and leaders of private-sector industries to explore how innovation in teaching – involving both people and gadgets – can improve the quality and equity of school systems and help to equip students with the skills they need in 21st-century societies.

Watch this space for more details about these – and other – education-related reports and events.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection
OECD Media Advisory: Launch of first OECD PISA report on digital skills

Register to join a webinar on Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection
with Andreas Schleicher Director of the Directorate for Education and Skills at the OECD and Francesco Avvisati, OECD Education Analyst, to discuss the findings from Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, on Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, at 17:00 Paris time
Follow the launch on twitter  #OECDPISA

Photo credit: Rear view of a group of university students walking away on a school hallway @Shutterstock