Going grey, staying skilled

by Marco Paccagnella
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD
The population is “greying” in most advanced countries as well as in some developing countries. Many governments are struggling to address the challenges resulting from this demographic transition, from rising costs of healthcare, to worries about the sustainability of pension systems.
Increased life expectancy represents one of the great achievements of modern societies: living longer and better has been a dream of past generations. At the same time, it implies changes to many aspects of life. To finance retirement incomes and aged care, many governments have reformed their pension provisions and are asking individuals to work longer for less-generous pensions and to contribute more to the costs of care. When such reforms are passed during times of sluggish economic growth and rising unemployment, they tend to create discontent not only among older workers (who may long to retire), but also among younger adults, who may feel that delaying the retirement of older workers reduces their opportunities. At the same time, older workers may feel threatened by the increasingly rapid pace of technological change, and fear that they will not be able to find a new job, should they be laid off in a highly competitive labour market.
Managing these issues is extremely complex, given the interests involved and the interaction between different areas of social and economic policy. Yet, there is little doubt that skills development will play a central role in solving the puzzle. A big question is whether, and to what extent, skills decline with age. Is it true that older workers are less skilled, and therefore less productive than younger workers? If that’s the case, how can we make sure that people maintain a sufficiently high level of skills proficiency over an increasingly long horizon?
New evidence from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills and examined in the most recent issue of Adult Skills in Focus is extremely relevant to this debate. It provides an accurate picture of the cognitive skills of adults in a wide range of countries, and links such skills to important economic and non-economic outcomes, such as employment, wages, and health status.
The data suggest that proficiency in skills such as literacy and numeracy declines with age, although slowly, and not much. More important, there is considerable variation across countries in the extent and size of differences in skills proficiency related to age, suggesting that policies can play an important role in shaping the evolution of skills over a lifetime. Yet while skills decline with age, wages and employment rates typically do not. This could suggest that older workers are overpaid, given their productivity. If that were the case, older workers would be justified in fearing they are more likely to be dismissed, and that they would have a hard time finding a new job if they were. But productivity is a complex concept, and the cognitive skills measured in the Survey of Adult Skills constitute only a fraction of the skills portfolio that employers reward. With experience, workers are likely to develop an entire range of other skills that are much more difficult to measure than literacy or numeracy, but that are equally, if not more, valuable to employers.
This is not to downplay the importance of cognitive skills. The data also show that proficiency in literacy influences the wages and likelihood of employment among older workers more than it does among younger workers.
What can be actually done to sustain the skills of people as they age? As usual, prevention is better than cure. Improving the quality of education, i.e. ensuring that people leave formal education with the highest possible level of literacy and numeracy proficiency, is likely to yield large benefits, more than simply increasing the time spent in education. Starting working life with high skills increases the chances of entering the virtuous circle in which skills provide access to the opportunities, such as good jobs and training that further develop skills.
Training is clearly important, but targeting access is probably even more important. The overall rate of participation in training appears to have little relationship to the size of differences in literacy proficiency between the young and the old. Countries with large differences in literacy proficiency between younger and older adults tend to be countries in which training is disproportionately taken up by young adults.
As other recent research show, retirement appears to accelerate the loss of cognitive skills. This suggests that policies to delay retirement may benefit the cognitive skills of existing workers, but also that policies to encourage older people to remain engaged are important for those who have left the workforce.
The bad news is that cognitive skills inevitably decline with age. The good news is that this is only part of the story. There is large scope to shape the evolution of skills over a lifetime; and cognitive skills, while important, are not the only determinant of people’s success in life.

What does age have to do with skills proficiency? Adult Skills in focus, issue No.3 by Marco Paccagnella
Quel rapport entre l’âge et les compétences?
Age, Ageing and Skills: Results from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills
Photo Credit: © OECD

How well are teachers doing in solving problems using ICT?

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

If one were to ask ministers of education what they consider to be the most important factor determining the quality of their education systems, the odds are high that they would refer to the quality of the teaching work force. The saying goes that the quality of an education system can never exceed that of its teachers. Ensuring that the most talented candidates are attracted to the teaching profession is now widely recognised to be the most effective strategy to improve education.

But how does one assess how teachers compare to the rest of the working population? We still lack reliable, robust and comparable measures of some of the essential elements of teachers’ knowledge and skills. A new tool developed by the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, known as the Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning (ITEL) assessment, focuses on teachers’ pedagogical knowledge. It will provide comparative measures of some core elements of the knowledge and skills that we expect from teachers. In the meantime, the results of the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), provide some insights into the skills of countries’ workforces – including teachers – in key areas, such as numeracy, literacy and problem solving. These data make it possible to compare the skills of teachers with those of other college and university graduates and with the working population as a whole.

A recent OECD report, prepared for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, held earlier this year in Berlin, found that teachers’ skills in numeracy tend to be similar to those of other tertiary-educated professionals. The Survey of Adult Skills also assessed adults’ proficiency in problem-solving in technology-rich environments. The most recent Education Indicators in Focus brief compares teachers’ ICT and problem-solving skills with those of the working population as a whole and with other tertiary-educated professionals. The chart above confirms that, as with numeracy skills, teachers’ problem-solving skills using ICT more or less match those of other tertiary-educated professionals. On average, 51% of teachers, compared to 31% of the adult population as a whole, demonstrated good problem-solving and ICT skills (proficiency was characterised as “good” when adults demonstrated a high level of problem-solving competence and at least a basic level of ICT skills). But on average, the share of other tertiary-educated professionals who demonstrated “good” ICT skills was 3 percentage points larger than that of teachers. In only four countries/subnational entities (Canada, England/Northern Ireland, Japan and Korea) did teachers outperform their tertiary-educated peers. In many other countries and subnational entities (Denmark, Estonia, Flanders [Belgium], Ireland and Poland) teachers’ problem-solving and ICT skills were significantly weaker than those of other tertiary-educated professionals.

Age could be part of the explanation. After accounting for age, teachers are 4 percentage points more likely than other tertiary-educated adults to have good problem-solving skills using ICT. This finding reinforces the conclusion, consistently noted in Education at a Glance, that policy makers need to take seriously the implications of an ageing teaching force.

When only one in two teachers – and, in several countries, even fewer – are capable of solving problems using ICT, then it is not unreasonable to question their capacity to address complex issues in their professional environment. For example, if teachers lack these skills, they cannot be expected to move away from a routine-based professional practice, controlled by bureaucratic procedures, to a much more autonomous professional culture. And the use of technology to improve teaching and learning environments will depend on teachers’ skills to use ICT creatively and to its fullest potential.

The recent sobering findings from PISA about the role of computers in improving learning outcomes might be partly attributed to a lack of excellence in ICT skills among teachers. But the age gradient in problem-solving and ICT skills is also good news: younger generations of teachers seem to be closing the skills gap. New generations of teachers who are better trained and who participate in professional development activities throughout their careers will probably be able to adopt innovative practices that are more suited to 21st-century learning environments. Governments should not blame older teachers for having poor problem-solving and ICT skills; equally, they cannot afford to miss the opportunity to fill the teaching posts left vacant by retirees with younger, more tech-savvy problem solvers.

Teachers’ ICT and problem-solving skills: Competencies and needs. Education Indicators in Focus, issue No.40, by Elian Bogers, Gabriele Marconi and Simon Normandeau.
Compétences en TIC et en résolution de problèmes : où en sont les enseignants ? Les indicateurs de l'éducation à la loupe issue No. 40 (French version)
Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning – Teacher Knowledge Survey
Teaching Excellence through Professional Learning and Policy Reform
Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators
Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection
Chart source: OECD Education database, www.oecd.org/site/piaac/publicdataandanalysis.htm.

Colombia’s moment of truth

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Colombia now has an historic opportunity to end one of the world’s longest-running armed conflicts. Will the country be able to seize this chance and realise its huge economic, social and cultural potential? That depends on nothing more than on what happens in Colombia’s classrooms.
Education is the foundation for lasting peace; and, as a new OECD report, Education in Colombia, shows, over the past 15 years, Colombia’s education system has undergone an extraordinary transformation.
Enrolments in both early childhood education and tertiary education have more than doubled over the period and school life expectancy has jumped by two years. Not only that, but Colombia has been one of the very few countries in the world that were able to enroll more children and raise the quality of learning outcomes at the same time. In fact, Colombia was among the top four countries to show a significant improvement in reading in the 2012 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
But as Colombia enters the global economy, its educational success will not just be about improvement by national standards, but about how Colombian children match up to children around the world. For a start, Colombia needs ambitious common learning standards that hold for all students across the country and that set high expectations for all students regardless of their socio-economic background, the place where they live or the school they attend. According to PISA results, 15-year-old students in Colombia are still about three years behind their peers in OECD countries. Developing these standards would give the country a chance to define the knowledge, skills and values needed in a new, inclusive Colombia.
Second, all children should have access to education from the youngest age. The deep inequities observed in access to tertiary education – 9% of students from the poorest families are enrolled in university-level education, compared to 53% of students from the wealthiest families – begin before children start school. Prioritising access to early childhood education for the most disadvantaged children and ensuring that all children start school by the age of five are two of the most effective ways Colombia can bridge this opportunity gap.
Third, teachers need to be empowered to lead this transformation; but that can only happen when they know what is expected of them – and get the support they need to teach effectively. For example, some 41% of 15-year-old students in Colombia have repeated at least one grade; yet PISA results have shown that grade repetition is not only ineffective, but it demotivates students and is costly to the system. Teachers in top-performing countries embrace high professional standards and work together to give each other feedback and support to improve their teaching practices. Professional autonomy in a collaborative culture, in turn, creates the conditions that are most conducive to student learning.
Fourth, investments in education will yield the greatest return if students leave education equipped with the skills that the economy and society needs. This requires cross-government collaboration to define clear education trajectories and qualifications, help students make informed choices about their careers and build effective partnerships with future employers to expand training opportunities. Such reforms must be a priority in rural areas, where stronger links between education and work will be the linchpin for development.
None of these next steps is easy, quick or inexpensive; but only with them, and with a clear and shared vision for the future of its education system, will Colombia be able to reap all the benefits of a hard-won peace.

Press release: Colombia should improve equity and quality of education
Reviews of National Policies for Education: Education in Colombia
Colombia Highlights
PISA 2012 Results
A silent revolution in Colombia, by Andreas Schleicher
Photo Credit: @Mineducacion

Making literacy everybody’s business

by Andreas Schleicher

Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

While poor literacy skills severely limit people’s access to better-paying and more rewarding jobs, data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills also shows that individuals with poor literacy skills are far more likely than those with advanced literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities.

Ensuring that all people have solid foundation skills has become one of the central aims of the post-2015 development agenda. This is not just about providing more people with more years of schooling; in fact, that’s only the first step. It is most critically about making sure that individuals acquire solid knowledge in key disciplines, that they develop creative, critical thinking and collaborative skills, and that they build character attributes, such as mindfulness, curiosity, courage and resilience. All of that builds on literacy. Leaders for Literacy Day is a good time to remind ourselves where we stand and how much more progress is needed.

Among 80 countries with comparable data, Ghana has the lowest enrolment rate in secondary schools (46%) and also the lowest achievement levels among those 15-year-olds who are in school (291 PISA points, on average). While it is difficult for Ghana to meet the goal of universal basic skills for its 15-year-olds any time soon, if it did, it would see a gain over the lifetime of children born today that, in present value terms, is 38 times its current GDP. This is equivalent of tripling Ghana’s discounted future GDP every four years during the working life of those students with improved skills.

One might be tempted to think that high-income countries have all the means to eliminate extreme underperformance in education; but the data show otherwise. For example, 24% of 15-year-olds in the United States cannot complete even basic Level 1 PISA tasks. The fact that the 10% most disadvantaged children in Shanghai outperform the 10% most advantaged children in parts of Europe and the United States reminds us that poverty isn’t destiny. If the United States were to ensure that all of its students meet the goal of universal basic skills, the economic gains could reach over USD 27 trillion in additional income for the American economy over the working life of these students.

But can countries really improve their populations’ literacy quickly? PISA shows that top performers in education, such as Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, and Singapore, were able to further extend their lead in literacy skills over the past few years; and countries like Peru, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates achieved major improvements from previously low levels of literacy performance. Even those who claim that student performance mainly reflects social and cultural factors must concede that improvements in education are possible. A culture of education isn’t just inherited, it is created by what we do.

So what we can learn from the world’s education leaders? The first lesson from PISA is that the leaders in high-performing school systems seem to have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education more than other things. Chinese parents and grandparents tend to invest their last renminbi in their children’s education. By contrast, in much of Europe and North America, governments have started to borrow the money of their children to finance their consumption today. The debt they have incurred puts a brake on economic and social progress.

But valuing education is just part of the equation. Another part is believing in the success of every child. Top school systems expect every child to achieve and accept no excuse for failure. They realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents, and they embrace diversity with differentiated instructional practices.

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 attract the right talent and they work to improve the performance of struggling teachers.

High performers have also adopted professional forms of work organisation in their schools. They encourage their teachers to use innovative pedagogies, improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and work together to define good practice. They grow and distribute leadership throughout the school system.

Perhaps most impressive, school systems as diverse as those in Finland and Shanghai attract the strongest principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms so that every student benefits from excellent teaching and school leadership.

But it is far too easy to assign the task of improving literacy skills just to schools. When formal schooling begins, many parents believe that their role as educators has ended. But literacy is a shared responsibility of parents, schools, teachers and other members of society. Results from PISA offer comfort to parents who are concerned that they don’t have enough time or the requisite academic knowledge to help their children succeed in school. The simple question, “How was school, today?”, asked by parents the world over has as great an impact on children’s literacy skills as  a family’s wealth. PISA results show that reading to children when they are very young is strongly related to how well those children read and how much they enjoy reading later on. In short, many types of parental involvement that are associated with better literacy skills require relatively little time and no specialised knowledge. What counts is genuine interest and active engagement.

Adult Skills in Focus No. 2: What does low proficiency in literacy really mean? by Miloš Kankaraš
Les Compétences des Adultes á la loupe No. 2: Qu’entend-on réellement par faibles compétences en littératie ?
Education Working Paper No. 131: Adults with Low Proficiency in Literacy or Numeracy
OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
International Literacy Association

Follow: #AgeOfLiteracy 
Photo credit: Pupils in classroom at the elementary school @Shutterstock

Governing complex education systems

by Tracey Burns
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Florian Koester
Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

What models of governance are effective in complex education systems? How can governments set priorities and design polices that balance responsiveness to local diversity with national education goals? And how do we ensure that there is trust, co-operation and communication between the multiple levels and actors in the system?
These are tough questions. Just published, Governing Education in a Complex World brings together state of the art research and insights from country experience to identify the elements necessary for effective education governance. The book challenges our traditional concepts of education governance through work on complexity, reform and new approaches to collaboration and decision-making. In doing so it sets the agenda for thinking about creating the open, dynamic and strategic approaches necessary for governing complex systems in today’s global world.
Effectively governing education systems is not a simple task. There are no magic solutions, no one-size-fits-all recipe that can be rolled out to guarantee success. Work on complexity theory reveals that a certain level of complexity in a system – whether in an education system or a school – can lead to unpredictable reactions or unexpected consequences to even seemingly simple changes. Modern education governance must be flexible at the same time as it steers a clear course towards established goals. It must also be efficient, limited by given funds and time.
The book identifies key elements to modern education governance. First, savviness and endurance are needed to align multi-level systems and it is vital to engage with a diverse set of actors, including students and parents. In doing so, it’s important to include all stakeholders and voices – not only the ones that shout the loudest – in the governance process to strengthen participatory decision-making. And while new technologies provide the opportunity to engage a broader set of actors, they also bring new challenges: instant feedback can mean that expectations rise faster than performance, and lead to short-term solutions rather than long-term vision. This tends to result in reactive decision-making, where the urgent is prioritised over the important. Staying on track and keeping an eye on the long-term is not easy, but it is key to effective and sustainable governance.
Education systems must also be able to resolve system-wide tensions. For example, countries are under pressure to strengthen their accountability systems while at the same time they encourage innovation.  Ideally, a system would have both a strong and constructive accountability system as well as dynamic innovation processes. However, controlled accountability mechanisms generally seek to minimise risk and mistakes to improve efficiency. At the same time, trial and error are fundamental to the innovation process. Finding the right balance of these two elements (or, perhaps more accurately, the right combination of mutually reinforcing dynamics) is key and will depend on the context and history of the system as well as the ambitions and expectations for its future.
Successful governance also requires thinking about the individuals involved, their needs and their aspirations. Any time a reform is rolled out, we need to think carefully of what is needed on the human level to make it happen. Do teachers (and principals, students and parents) have the capacity to deliver on their new responsibilities? If not, is training or other support in place? This is a simple set of questions, but our work demonstrates that it is often this piece of the puzzle that gets lost in the rush to move forward with a new reform or policy. Yet without the required capacity and support, the best plan risks being derailed at the level where it counts most: the classroom.
So what are the elements of effective modern governance systems? Effective governance:
• focuses on processes, not structures;
• is flexible and can adapt to change and unexpected events;
• works through building capacity, stakeholder involvement and open dialogue;
• requires a whole system approach to align roles and balance tensions;
• harnesses evidence and research to inform policy and practice; and
• is built on trust.
The search for new modes of governance for 21st century education systems will certainly continue in the years to come. Governing Education in a Complex World sets the agenda and challenges us to develop the open, adaptable, and flexible governance systems necessary in a complex world. Just as education must move to evolve and grow with our modern world, so too must the systems that govern them.

Governing Education in a Complex World
OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Find out more on Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)
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