Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Improving equity in education: a critical challenge

by Ben Levin
Professor University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy

Improving equity in student outcomes remains a critical challenge for every country in the OECD.  Even those countries with the lowest levels of inequity must still be concerned with gaps in outcomes that are not related to students’ motivation and capacity, while in other countries the inequities are so large as to pose a fundamental challenge to ongoing security and prosperity.

The new report, Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, provides a cogent analysis and many ideas for addressing these issues.  The report provides a blueprint for any country that wishes to make genuine progress in promoting equity while also improving quality.  These ideas are well grounded in the best available research evidence (though in some cases that evidence is not as strong as one would want, simply due to insufficient research on many important educational issues).

The larger issue is whether countries will have the will and skill to make these changes.  As outlined in my 2008 book, ‘How to Change 5000 Schools’, knowing what to do is important but not enough.  In many cases we already know what to do, but we do not do it.  As a simple example, consider physical exercise and good eating habits.  Everyone knows these are essential to health, yet many people simply do not do them.  How much more difficult to make changes in a large and complex institution like a school system!

There are two aspects to effective implementation of the right changes.  The first is whether the will exists to make the changes.  In many cases the beneficiaries of the status quo will be vocal in opposing anything that they think might diminish the relative advantage of their children.  Less streaming is one good example of this situation, often opposed by parents and teachers who benefit from a streamed system despite the strong evidence that this practice is, overall, a bad one.  There can be very difficult politics around making some of the changes that would actually benefit students.  These conflicts cannot be ignored; they must be faced directly.

Second, and just as important, is whether systems have the capacity to bring real change about.  As the report notes, real improvement requires real changes in classroom practice.  These do not occur through issuing policy statements, developing new curricula, or even through changes in accountability and testing.  Changing people’s daily behavior takes sustained and relentless attention to the way daily work is done.  This attention must extend over time and take into account everything the organization does.  Very few countries have this capacity.  Very few ministries of education have much capacity to lead and support school improvement.  Very few school leaders know how to do this work.

Countries that are serious about greater equity – and greater quality – will need to consider carefully how they can support real and lasting implementation of the necessary changes.  Luckily, the OECD does offer some examples, in its higher performing countries, of the kinds of organizational measures that are needed to achieve these important goals.  We know this can be done; the question is how many countries will make the required effort.

More information about OECD work on equity in education: www.oecd.org/edu/equity
Executive Summary: Equity and Quality in Education - Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools

Photo: School wall mural painting by students, Ontario 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Higher education: an insurance policy against global downturns

by J.D. LaRock
Senior Analyst, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education
During the first two years of the economic crisis, unemployment
was higher among adults with less education, on average across the OECD zone.
With all the economic turmoil of the past several years, have you ever wished you could buy an insurance policy to protect against the effects of a global recession?  Well, such a insurance policy already exists – and it’s called higher education.  During the first two years of the global economic crisis, in country after country, people with a tertiary (higher) education were much less likely to be unemployed, much more likely to be participating in the labour force, and more likely to have higher earnings, compared to their less-educated counterparts.

These and other findings are discussed in the first issue of the OECD’s new education brief series, Education Indicators in Focus.

As the crisis ramped up in 2008 and continued in 2009, unemployment rates increased across the board in OECD countries. However, the impact was much greater for adults without an upper secondary education. Among this group, unemployment rates rose from an already high 8.7% to 11.5%, and jumped five percentage points or more in Estonia, Ireland, Spain and the United States.  Adults with an upper secondary or equivalent level of education fared somewhat better: among this group, unemployment rates rose from 4.9% to 6.8% between 2008 and 2009 across the OECD zone.  However, in Estonia, Ireland, Spain and Turkey, jobless rates reached 10% or more for this group of people – a mark generally regarded as troublingly high territory for unemployment.

By contrast, people with a tertiary education were the best protected against unemployment during the thick of the global recession. Overall, unemployment rates in OECD countries ticked up just 1.1 percentage points for this group between 2008 and 2009, from 3.3% to 4.4%.  Moreover, 2009 unemployment rates remained at 5% or less for tertiary-educated people in 24 out of 34 OECD countries, and surpassed 8% in only two – Spain and Turkey.

Employment figures tell a similar story: during the crisis year of 2009, people with higher education not only had less trouble finding a job, but also had an easier time keeping the job they had.  Across all OECD countries, 83.6% of adults with a tertiary education were employed in 2009, compared to 74.2% of adults with an upper secondary or equivalent education, and just 56.0% of adults without an upper secondary education.  While a number of factors contribute to the level of adults’ participation in the labour force, higher employment rates for people with more education point to a better match between the skills these individuals possess and the skills the labour market demands, even during periods of economic crisis.

What’s more, the sizeable earnings premium that university-educated people typically enjoy in the labour market held strong during the crisis years of 2008 and 2009.  In 2008, among 14 OECD countries with comparable data, the typical employee with higher education earned 56% more than the typical employee with an upper secondary or equivalent education.  Even in the face of the economic crisis, this premium increased slightly to 57% in 2009. By contrast, the typical employee without an upper secondary education earned 23% less than a corresponding worker with an upper secondary education in 2008 – and this earnings penalty remained the same in 2009.

Having a higher education isn’t fail-safe protection from the consequences of a global economic downturn.  But like any good insurance policy, it can help people recover when bad things happen to them.  And with the economic outlook for 2012 looking as uncertain as it does, that’s no small comfort.

For more information
Education Indicators in Focus
Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators www.oecd.org/edu/eag2011
OECD’s Indicators of Education Systems (INES) programme (Brochure PDF 2.3 KB)

Chart source: Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators, Indicator A7.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Early Childhood Education and Care: a priority investment

by Kristin Halvorsen
Minister of Education, Norway

As Minister of Education in Norway I am happy to be hosting the OECD roundtable conference Starting Strong: Implementing policies for high-quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). Providing all children with high quality early childhood education and care is an investment in the future and provides a great benefit for both the individual and society.

The conference brings together ministers and senior officials, responsible for early childhood education and care in 36 OECD countries from around the world. Almost 200 participants have registered for the conference, which includes also researchers and stakeholders, and the conference will also be webcast live starting 09h00 (local time) on 24 January 2012. The theme of the roundtable conference is well linked to the Norwegian efforts to ensure high quality in our ECEC institutions.

“Let’s think big about our smallest children!”,  that has been my personal slogan for the political work and the extensive changes we have brought about in Norway since 2005.We need to do just what this roundtable is about; to see in detail how we can develop our policies put our ideas into practice. We need to move from statements to action. In doing so, we need to share and listen to each other’s experiences, both the success-stories and the challenges.  We need to see what is in our policy toolbox.

Investment in early childhood education and care is not just an investment in our children and their future, it also a sound economic investment.

I am looking forward to meeting all the participants in Oslo this week. As Starting Strong III points out, in order to develop good practices and high quality in ECEC we have to continue to broaden our knowledge in this field through more research. We also need to disseminate what we know.  This roundtable conference allows us to do both.

For more information about OECD’s work on early childhood education and care (ECEC): www.oecd.org/edu/earlychildhood
Online quality toolbox for early childhood education and care: www.oecd.org/edu/earlychildhood/toolbox
OECD-Norway High-level Roundtable: Starting Strong: Implementing Policies for High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)
Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research

Related blog posts:
Starting Strong: what should children learn?
Starting Strong: The people helping to raise young children

Photo credit: Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Boys, girls and hypertext

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Indicators and Analysis Division, Directorate for Education

Computers, cell phones and tablets are now so much a part of our lives that we can’t even remember what life was like before them—much less figure out how we managed to get through the day without consulting them. The youngest students now surf the Net with the skill of cyber beach boys and text friends as easily as waving at them.

Or do they?

In 2009 PISA conducted a groundbreaking survey of digital literacy  among 15-year-old students. PISA wanted to find out whether boys and girls are as ready for the digital age as they—and we—think they are. As the latest issue of PISA in Focus shows, while many students may have the technological skills, not all have the cognitive skills to fully capitalise on technology to access, manage, integrate and evaluate digital information.

On average, PISA results show that student performance in digital reading is closely related to performance in print reading, meaning that those students who are proficient in reading texts on paper are also proficient in reading texts on a screen. But in some countries, such as Australia and Korea, students score significantly higher in digital reading than in print reading; while in other countries, notably Hungary, Poland and the partner country Colombia, students are better in print reading than in digital reading.

Perhaps the most interesting finding from this assessment has to do with the difference in digital literacy between girls and boys. Since the beginning of the PISA tests in 2000, girls have always scored higher in reading than boys–and by a substantial margin: the equivalent of one year of formal schooling. While this is still true for reading digital texts, the performance gap is significantly narrower: 24 score points compared with 38 score points in print reading.

A closer look at these results showed that there was a larger percentage of boys at the highest proficiency levels in digital reading than at the highest levels in print reading, and a smaller percentage of boys at the bottom proficiency levels in digital reading scale than at the bottom level in print reading.

What might account for this? Digital literacy involves more than using a computer and reading words, even if those words are on a screen rather than on a piece of paper. To be literate in digital reading, one must also be able to navigate easily through hypertexts, that is, construct one’s own text using embedded links to other texts and materials, rather than reading a text in predetermined sequence. Boys might be more interested–and have greater experience–in navigating through hypertexts than in reading a printed page.

In turn, that important finding could be used by parents, educators and policy makers to set in motion a “virtuous cycle” whereby encouraging boys to read more on line would lead to better digital reading proficiency which, in turn, would instill greater enjoyment of reading, which, ultimately, could lead to better reading performance in both print and digital media.

For more information:
on PISA: www.pisa.oecd.org
Full set of PISA in Focus: www.oecd.org/pisa/infocus
Students On Line: Digital Technologies and Performance, explores students’ use of information technologies to learn

Photo credit: ©Hemera/Thinkstock 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Starting Strong: The people helping to raise young children

by Kelly Makowiecki
Assistant to the Early Childhood Education and Care Project, Directorate for Education

For my generation, the concept of a stay-at-home parent seems like something of the past. And even if you want to stay home for the first few years of your child’s life, who can afford not to work these days? So what are kids up to during those precious, formative early years after their parents go back to work and before compulsory school begins around age 5 or 6? At some point, a lot of them enter into a formal education or care setting and are the responsibility of someone other than their family.

Who are the people we turn to for help in the immensely important role of raising our young children? And can we value them as much as we depend on them?

That’s difficult to judge when, for starters, the early childhood education and care (ECEC) workforce consists of a wide variety of actors with an equally wide range of qualifications.  Those working as preschool/kindergarten teachers tend to have higher qualification requirements than those working in child care centres or family day care: the former usually need a university degree, while the latter sometimes only need to complete compulsory education. But in countries like Japan and Portugal, the same university-level qualification is required for both job types.

Maybe they’ve completed a 4-year teacher training programme or have a vocational degree in child care. Maybe they have prior learning or work experience that was converted into credits towards an ECEC certification, which is popular in countries like the Netherlands and New Zealand. No matter the pathway taken into the profession, professionals need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills that enable them to foster a high-quality pedagogic environment conducive to favourable cognitive and social outcomes for children.

So perhaps more important than the qualification level itself is the content of the training required to obtain the qualification. When entrusting a child with a childcare professional, we expect them to know about how children develop and learn. We want them to be trained in nurturing children’s perspectives and responding to their needs. Such skills ensure that kids are provided with the strong start they deserve.

Thanks to a growing body of research, the importance of high-quality ECEC is increasingly apparent. Academic institutions all over the world have or are developing programmes of study in this field. Governments are investing in recruiting better trained staff and undertaking campaigns to raise the profile of the profession. Employers are encouraging their staff to pursue ongoing training to fill in knowledge gaps and maintain their professional quality.

Are these endeavours cheap? No. Are they worth it? Yes. The ECEC workforce is on the front line of helping to ensure that young children develop the skills they need to be successful in compulsory school and beyond. School failure and its social costs later in life can be far more expensive.

The OECD has been reviewing ECEC for well over a decade; and it is no wonder that improving workforce qualifications, training and working conditions has emerged as a policy priority across countries. To learn more, check out Starting Strong III: A quality toolbox for early childhood education and care, a new OECD publication to be launched at a Roundtable in Oslo, Norway on 23-24 January 2012.

For more information about OECD’s work on early childhood education and care (ECEC): www.oecd.org/edu/earlychildhood
Online quality toolbox for early childhood education and care: www.oecd.org/edu/earlychildhood/toolbox
Investing in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) (PDF 1.79 MB)
OECD-Norway High-level Roundtable: Starting Strong: Implementing Policies for High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)

Related blog posts:
Starting Strong: what should children learn?
Early childhood education: an international development issue

Photo credit: Microsoft

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Starting Strong: what should children learn?

by Matias Egeland
Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education

In Norway, where I’m from, we believe children have the right to progress at their own speed, and enjoy a childhood of pleasure and freedom. The fundamental idea, shared by several Nordic countries, is that childhood is the time to have fun, as opposed to being in school (or anything resembling school for that matter). Admittedly, this sounds very nice, if not a bit idealistic.

While it is important for children to be just children, the early years are also especially formative and important for children to develop skills and competencies . The importance and value of good quality care and education for children is becoming increasingly clear, and have shown to impact things as diverse as creativity and life-time earnings.

As the early years represent a crucial chance to shape and impact children and their future development, the key question is which traits and abilities do we want children to acquire and harness?

The curricula that shape and guide early childhood programmes have traditionally been divided between those seen to focus on “academic” learning in specific subject areas, and those seeking a “comprehensive” approach more focused on children’s social development. The Nordic take on child care has tended towards that of the “comprehensive” approach.

The countries that tend to favour an “academic” approach usually see the child as  a young person to be formed, the child presenting an investment for society. They try to centre curricula on what is considered “useful” learning. However, what actually is “useful” for children to learn should be given some thought.

The “soft” skills favoured in a “comprehensive” approach such as self-confidence, creativity, independence and initiative are useful beyond giving children a happy childhood. Indeed, these personality traits are important for making children capable life-long learners. Initial knowledge of geography is likely not as important as confidence and willingness to learn for later academic success. For example self-control and attentional control are found to be a stronger predictor for school readiness than IQ and entry level reading or math. Moreover, these traits are proving increasingly important for later labour market success.

Soft skills that can be fostered in the early years are not just useful, they are also important from an equity perspective. They can play a key role in evening out the gap between children who are less likely to develop confidence and emotional control in their home setting. A US study showed that children from professional families experience around six positive verbal interactions (affirmations or encouragements) for each negative one (prohibitions, being told off, etc.). In contrast children in families on welfare experience two negative interactions for each positive one. Furthermore, as the Economist put it in a recent article: “the qualities that employers in the service sector want are those the middle classes acquire at home: articulacy, confidence and smartness”.

Confidence and emotional control do not develop automatically, but can be facilitated by skilled professionals by focusing on children’s perspectives and through active use of play . What goes into the curricula that guide what children learn and do in a care or education setting is of great importance. The new OECD publication “Starting Strong III: A Quality Toolbox for Early Childhood Education and Care” states clearly that curriculum matters and lessons from the Nordic, and other, countries  suggest that focusing on the “child” and effectively using  play as a learning strategy can  benefit children's development. 

Starting Strong III will be launched in Oslo on January 24th. Having invested hugely in child care, revamped their curriculum and reformed their kindergarten staff education, the Norwegian minister of Education, Kristin Halvorsen, is hosting an OECD Roundtable on Early Childhood Education and Care. Ministers, policy-makers and stakeholders from across the world are coming together to address the challenges in achieving high-quality child care and education.

For more information about OECD’s work on early childhood education and care (ECEC): www.oecd.org/edu/earlychildhood
Investing in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) (PDF 1.79 MB)
OECD-Norway High-level Roundtable: Starting Strong: Implementing Policies for High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)

Photo credit: iStockphoto, Microsoft Partner

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Making education reform happen

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Indicators and Analysis Division, Directorate for Education

This is the time of year when a lot of us resolve to commit ourselves to self-improvement plans of greater or lesser magnitude. Spend more time reading? On the list. Eat better? Ditto. Reform the education system? Whoa—nice idea; but isn’t that a bit too ambitious? 

What is it about education reform that all-too-often turns resolve into sighs and resignation? If countries really want to keep that resolution, here’s a suggestion: invite teachers to get involved.

On the face of it, it seems elementary: The best—meaning the most sustainable and effective—reforms happen when those who are directly affected support them. You don’t have to take our word for it; just look at how some of the best-performing and rapidly improving school systems got that way. Take Finland,  for example–one of the consistently best-performing OECD countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since the assessments were first conducted in 2000. While teachers there have long enjoyed high professional status (which should be one of the goals of reform in countries where teachers are poorly trained, poorly paid and not recognised as the professionals they are—or should be), their views on improving student performance are actively solicited and, to the extent possible, used to spur and support change.

Ontario, Canada, initiated a comprehensive reform of its education system in 2003 to improve graduation rates and standards in literacy and numeracy. Those who led the reform effort acknowledge that it couldn’t have been as successful as it has been without the involvement of teachers’ unions and superintendents’ and principals’ organisations. For example, a collective bargaining agreement with the main teachers’ unions there eased the way for a reduction in class size and more preparation time for teachers—changes that, in turn, led to the creation of some 7,000 new jobs.

When teachers, union leaders and education ministers meet again in New York this March for the second OECD co-sponsored International Summit of the Teaching Profession, they will no doubt take as a starting point their conclusion from last year’s Summit: that high-quality teaching forces are created through deliberate policy choices, and by engaging strong teachers as active agents in school reform, not just using them to implement plans designed by others. In other words, the resolve to reform education can only be turned into real reform if teachers are at the forefront of change.

So in these first few days of the new year, be ambitious in your resolutions—and wise in keeping them.

For a full summary of the evidence that underpinned the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession held in New York in March 2011 see the report:
Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the World
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)
Video Series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

Picture credit: Mark Rogers, fallingfifth.com