by Montserrat Gomendio
Deputy Director, Directorate for Education and Skills
Activities undertaken by lower secondary teachers at least once per month,
OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013
A new OECD review of the Netherlands education system offers a roadmap towards excellence. Netherlands 2016: Foundations for the Future, based on data from both PISA and the Survey of Adult Skills, confirms that the country already enjoys a high-quality and highly equitable education system. But it also identifies areas that need to be improved as the country moves its education system, in the words of Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Jet Bussemaker, “from good to great”.
The Dutch school system is highly stratified, and uses early tracking extensively. For a long time the Netherlands has made this complex school system work well for students: students performed well at school, socio-economic status had a relatively weak impact on performance, and were readily employable when they completed their schooling (the number of young people who are neither employed nor in education or training is among the lowest across OECD countries). Our analysis shows large differences in performance within educational tracks, and a large degree of overlap in literacy and numeracy performance between tracks. This implies that students in different tracks are equipped with more similar levels of skills than is observed in other countries, probably due to the existence of “bridge classes” and “scaffolding diplomas” which allow for greater flexibility among the different curricula. But evidence points to a worrying trend towards making the system more rigid, which could lead to less movement between tracks and an erosion of the equity levels that the system enjoys today.
The complexity of these issues calls for a coherent policy response. Netherlands 2016, the first report of its kind since the late 1980s, proposes making student selection more objective by giving more prominence to an objective national test; limiting secondary schools' autonomy in selecting students into different educational tracks; and making the system more permeable to ensure that students progress more smoothly through the education system. The latter calls for various measures, including the alignment of curricula of different tracks, more personalised teaching and learning, promoting larger secondary schools that offer all education tracks through financial incentives.
More efforts should also be made to attract talented and motivated people to the teaching profession especially since many teachers in the Netherlands are approaching retirement age. A more systematic approach to the professional development of teachers is needed. The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013 shows that collaborative working and learning among teachers is not well established in the Dutch school system, yet these practices have proven essential for improving the quality of teaching. These findings stand at odds with the country’s ambitions to develop its schools into learning organisations.
The system has achieved a good balance between a large degree of school autonomy and efficient accountability mechanisms. However, given the extent of school autonomy, more effort should be invested in training school principals.
The quality of early childhood education and care should also be improved. Although participation rates are high, most parents use childcare facilities fewer hours a week than parents in most other OECD countries do. A national curriculum framework, higher staff qualifications and more staff training are needed to ensure all early childhood education and care services are of high quality and deliver good outcomes for children, and long-term benefits for Dutch society as a whole.
by Bonaventura Francesco Pacileo
Statistician, Directorate for Education and Skills
When Tim Duncan, captain of the the US National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs, was spotted wearing a T-shirt saying “4 out of 3 people struggle with math”, everyone realised that he was counting himself among those who have a hard time with fractions, making the joke even funnier. What is less funny, though, is that PISA 2012 results show that more than one in four 15-year-old students in OECD countries are only able to solve mathematics problems where all relevant information is obvious and the solutions follow immediately from the given stimuli.
As a professional basketball player, Tim Duncan would probably agree that hard work is a prerequisite for attaining individual goals. Working hard is also important in education. According to this month’s PISA in Focus and the recently published report Low-performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed, most low-performing students share a common trait: they lack perseverance.
In most PISA-participating countries and economies, when students are asked to solve problems requiring some effort, low-performing students are more likely to report that they give up easily. Across OECD countries, 32% of low-performing students reported that they give up easily when confronted with a difficult mathematics problem compared to only 13% of top performers. Differences between the two groups are largest in Jordan, Portugal, Qatar, the Slovak Republic and the United Arab Emirates. This might lead us to conclude that these struggling students are largely responsible for their own academic failures, since they have ultimate control over how much effort they invest in their schoolwork.
But evidence from PISA tells another narrative: low-performing students may be less engaged at school because they believe their efforts do not pay off. This disengagement is obvious when students are asked about the returns to their efforts. While 81% of top performers agreed that they feel “prepared for mathematics exams”, only 56% of low performers agreed with that statement. Low-performing students seem to quit studying when they see their work as an unproductive and unprofitable waste of time. But at the same time, low-performing students often engage in activities that require numeracy skills. Perhaps surprisingly, they are actually more likely to play chess or to be members of a mathematics club.
The good news is that these kinds of activities may be exactly what could help low-performing students develop better study habits. PISA finds that interest in mathematics is greater among students who do mathematics as an extracurricular activity compared to students who do not, and this positive association is stronger among low-performing students. These additional learning opportunities, which could help students gain self-confidence and find enjoyment in mathematics, could be exploited to narrow performance gaps among students.
As Tim Duncan would put it, students need a proper training court where they can learn how to become champions.
by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills
How are policy makers in the United States using data to help districts maximise their impact? And, what tools do districts need to work together in order to build stronger communities? The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in the United States has transferred a great deal of autonomy to states and districts. These local authorities are now responsible for transforming state and federal policies into strategies and practices that guide teaching and learning in the classroom. This allocated autonomy creates opportunities for states and districts to collaborate, but also adds an element of the unknown, since most decisions used to be taken at the federal level. Data are crucial to understanding the effect policies have on education systems at a local level. But, collecting the right kind of data can be challenging.
The OECD’s triennial report on the state of education, the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA), can be a good starting point. Tracking trends over time, PISA allows policy makers to link data on student learning outcomes with data on students’ backgrounds and attitudes towards learning and on key factors that shape their learning, in and outside of school. PISA examines the relationships with low performance, what makes schools successful, including autonomy and accountability, and teacher-student collaboration.
A new online course developed by EdPolicy Leaders online aims to unlock PISA to reveal what is possible in education for US policy makers and education leaders. We hope it will enable educators to leverage the experience of the world’s leading school systems to improve policies and practice.
Understanding PISA results is a first step towards defining ways in which PISA data can be used to identify strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. education system. What then follows is creative thinking about what education leaders, schools, teachers, parents and students themselves can do to support policy actions that ensure every student is equipped with the skills necessary to achieve their full potential and participate in an increasingly interconnected global economy.
There is no single combination of policies and practices that will work for everyone, everywhere. PISA’s unique contribution to the education debate is that it shows policy makers and education leaders what’s possible and shares evidence of the best policies and practices across the globe.
For the next round of PISA in 2018, the OECD will take the assessment a step further and work with member countries to build a new framework which goes beyond testing students on their cognitive abilities. PISA will also examine if schools are helping students develop trust and respect, and are preparing them to be able to collaborate with others of different cultural origins.
PISA online course: How Do We Stack Up? Using OECD'S PISA to Drive Progress in U.S. Education
PISA 2012 Key Findings
PISA 2015 Assessment and Analytical Framework
OECD proposal for a framework to assess Global Competence in PISA 2018
Today policy makers, employer and employee representatives have different considerations in mind, but the dynamics of costs and benefits matter just as much. Those dynamics need to be built into the design of apprenticeships and other work-based learning to make it attractive to both employers and learners. A new OECD study funded by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, entitled Work, train, win: Work-based learning design and management for productivity gains casts a spotlight on these issues.
At the beginning of work-based learning programmes employers make an investment. This pays off later on when, after receiving high quality training, skilled trainees achieve higher productivity and contribute to production. That final period when trainees are more productive than they cost is essential, as it helps employers recoup their initial costs. But if it is too long, then trainees will find it unattractive. Of course, not all occupations are the same. For example an apprentice in retail can quickly become productive so a work-based learning scheme for this occupation should be shorter, while a person training to be an industrial mechanic typically needs more time to become competent at their job and longer duration would be appropriate.
What exactly trainees do while in the workplace also affects the balance of costs and benefits for both parties. A restaurant benefits both when an apprentice cook peels potatoes (unskilled work) and when they bake a soufflé (skilled work), but gains no immediate benefits when the would-be cook is doing practice exercises that are non-productive, even though they are developing their skills. The good news is that there is often room to build learning into productive work, in ways that benefit the firms and are neutral for the trainees. For example, after observing their supervisor a trainee might practice the skill either through simulations or by doing real work. They improve their skills either way, but doing real work also generates benefits for the firm. Indeed research found that German firms with apprentices reduced the share of non-productive activities by half between 2000 and 2007, and increased the share of productive work – and they did that while maintaining training quality.
The scope for learning through productive work does vary across occupations. An apprentice cook can have a go at their first beurre blanc on day one, but a would-be electrician must undertake substantial training before touching the wires. But whenever possible, learning should take place as part of productive activities and rigorous assessments at the end of the scheme can verify that learning has taken place – if an apprentice electrician is able to correctly install a branch circuit in front of an examiner, there will be no doubt about it.
Putting this into practice requires management capacity within firms, so that they can allocate trainees and supervisors to tasks that meet the twin goals of learning and production. In countries and sectors with a tradition of work-based learning firms have much tacit knowledge (as many employers used to be apprentices themselves) and there is a surrounding infrastructure, such as training for trainers and instructional resources. Developing the infrastructure and enhancing firms’ ability to manage work-based learning is a big job, but well worth the effort and not just for those involved in a work-based learning scheme. Keeping a workplace up-to-date means dealing with new machines, materials and software, so firms that know how to support learning while getting on with productive activities will have a competitive edge.
When Queen Elizabeth I put down her feather, the law she signed remained in place for 250 years. Today policy and practice regarding work-based learning changes much more rapidly – but the main challenge of getting the design of work-based learning schemes right remains just as important as it was in her day.
OECD Education Working Paper: Work, train, win: work-based learning design and management for productivity gains, by Viktoria Kis
Find out more about Work-based learning
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