Wednesday, September 30, 2015

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.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

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

Thursday, September 17, 2015

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

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.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

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

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

(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

Friday, August 21, 2015

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

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:
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators: 
Chart Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance database

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Future shock: Teaching yourself to learn

by Marilyn Achiron 
Editor, Education and Skills Directorate

The book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal wrote of reading Tyler Cowen’s 2013 book, Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, “with a deepening sense of dread”. 
The Economist understatedly called the book “bracing”. What does Cowen, a professor at George Mason University and daily blogger on, say that provokes such fear and trembling in readers?  Essentially this: if you’re not among the 10-15% of the population that has learned how to master and complement computers, you’ll be doomed to earn low wages in dead-end jobs. We spoke with Cowen when he was in Paris recently to participate in the OECD Forum. His comments are drawn from both our interview and his presentation at the Forum.

“There are two things people need to learn how to do to be employable at a decent wage: first, learn some skills which complement the computer rather than compete against it. Some of these are technical skills, but a lot of them will be soft skills, like marketing, persuasion and management that computers won’t be able to do any time soon. 

But the second skill, and this is a tough one, is to be very good at teaching yourself new things. Right now, our schools are not so good at teaching this skill. The changes we’ve seen so far are just the beginning; 20-30 years from now, we’ll all be doing different things. So people who are very good at teaching themselves, regardless of what their formal background is, will be the big winners. People who do start-ups already face this. They’ve learned some things in school, but most of what they do they’ve had to learn along the way; and that, I think, is the future of education. I’m not convinced that our schools will or can keep pace with that; people will do it on their own. 

There has arisen a kind of parallel network – a lot of it is on the Internet, a lot of it is free – where people teach themselves things, often very effectively. But there is a kind of elitist bias: people who are good at using this content are people who are already self-motivated. 

The better technology gets, the more human imperfections matter. Think about medicine: the better pharmaceuticals get, the more it matters which people neglect to actually take them in the right doses. Education is entering the same kind of world. There’s so much out there, on the Internet and elsewhere. It’s great; but that means that human imperfections, like just not giving a damn, will matter more and more.

What concrete changes would I make in schools? The idea that you need to take a whole class to learn some topic is absurd. Whatever you’ve learned is probably going to be obsolete. A class is to spur your interest, to expose you to a new role model, a new professor, to a new set of students. We should have way more classes which are way shorter. It should be much more about learning, more about variety, give up the myth that you’re teaching people how to master some topic; you’re not! You want to inspire them; it’s much more about persuasion, soft skills. 

Liberal arts education and the humanities will remain important. They’re still underrated. People get their own liberal arts education on the Internet; it may be weird, low-status stuff that a lot of us have never heard of, like computer games, or celebrities or sports analytics. But they are learning statistics through sports, learning the humanities through computer games, learning about tragedy through TV shows, and they are retaining and absorbing this to a phenomenal extent. We are, in some ways, the ones who are behind. Formal education needs to wake up, internalise the lessons we all implement in our daily lives. The Internet is one of the biggest breakthroughs in education ever; it’s here. We should realise that, more and more, learning will not go on in standard classrooms. We live in a great and exciting time when it comes to education; now we have to make all those pieces work and fit together. To do that, we have to give up a lot of our loyalty to the older model.

Education occurs in many forms; it’s not the same as schooling. We always need to keep that in mind.

Through the new Education 2030 project and the OECD Innovative Schools network, the OECD will be examining the cognitive, social and emotional skills students need to participate and succeed in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and digitised world. In addition, Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills presents a synthesis of the OECD’s analytical work on the role of socio-emotional skills; and look out for Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, which reports on the use – or lack thereof – of computers in education (to be published in September), and Trends Shaping Education, which will be published in January 2016.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Breaking down the silo: connecting education to world trends

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Did you ever wonder if education has a role to play in stemming the obesity epidemic sweeping across all OECD countries? Or what the impact of increasing urbanisation might be on our schools, families, and communities? Or whether new technologies really are fundamentally changing the way our children think and learn? If so, you’re not alone.

The OECD’s work on Trends Shaping Education stimulates reflection on the challenges facing education by providing an overview of key economic, social, demographic and technological trends. It has been used by ministries to guide strategic thinking and in Parliaments as a strategic foresight tool. It’s also part of the curriculum in teacher education colleges, and is a resource for teachers when designing courses and lectures, as well as parents and students themselves.

The fourth edition of the book will be launched in January 2016. Two weeks ago, the Trends team travelled to Brussels to hold an expert workshop with researchers in a number of domains, including demography, governance, urban design, new technologies, climate change, financial literacy, small and medium enterprises, children and families, and banking.

Why take the time to meet face-to-face with these experts? To be honest we weren’t sure that it would yield any results. Researchers have many demands on their time, and it is not often that they are given a chance to look beyond their own particular speciality to think more holistically about global trends. Sometimes, though, it is by bringing people together unexpectedly that the best ideas emerge.

Will robots replace our teaching force in 10 years? In 20 years? Will new fertility technologies allow for designer babies (and, in parallel, “rejects” that did not turn out as expected)? Will online relationships rival or replace our friendship groups? What might this mean for families, and schools? These ideas might seem radical, but the trends behind them are supported by science. And while they are still speculative, there are a number of trends that could have an impact on education, if not today, then tomorrow or the next day. And yet most of our education systems still do not address them.

For example, climate change trends make it clear that across OECD countries we can expect to experience more and more extreme weather events. In most of our countries, the effects will be felt most acutely in cities, where the density of the population and ageing infrastructure (roads and services, such as water, electricity and plumbing) makes us especially vulnerable. If you combine this with worries about the emergence of new epidemics (MERS in Korea is just the latest example) and our ageing populations, a cautious city planner has reason for concern. And not just hypothetical reasons, either. Recent flooding in New York and other major cities has revealed the weakness of many of our emergency-response services.

So what does this have to do with education? Good question. In the short term, communities need to have a plan to educate their populations on what to do (and not do) in the event of a major storm or other extreme weather event such as drought or fires. In the medium and long term, we need to develop school infrastructure and transport that are designed to provide safe access for our students. Hoping it won’t happen is not a sustainable plan – certainly not for the communities that have already experienced an extreme weather event or those that are forecast to do so in the near future.

This is just one example. Important trends to keep an eye on range from the macro level (increasing globalisation and migration) all the way through national and regional labour markets, urban planning, and our changing demography and family structures. How can education support our ageing populations – currently one of the major demographic preoccupations for most OECD governments – to stay active and healthy well past retirement? Will cities keep growing at increasing speeds, or will we continue to see the decline of mid-size cities, such as Detroit (USA) and Busan (Korea)? What about new technologies in the classroom, will they change the way we teach and learn? Perhaps even our concept of what a classroom is?

In September, we plan to hold a second workshop in order to discuss how the trends we have identified might interact with education in the short and medium term. Stay tuned to find out how that goes, and to get a sneak peek between the covers of the next Trends Shaping Education volume, due out in January next year.

Trends Shaping Education 2013
The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Photo Credit: Concentrated students in lecture hall working on their futuristic tablet during lesson @Shutterstock

Thursday, July 16, 2015

How to help adult learners learn the basics

by Hendrickje Catriona Windisch
Analyst, Education and Skills Directorate

Tackling weak basic skills is hard and incentives to learn are often lacking 

The fact that some adults cannot understand the instructions printed on a box of medicine is not only dangerous, it shows that, somewhere along the line, the education system failed them. People who find themselves in this position are often shy of admitting their problems, and the idea of going back to school is their worst nightmare. A new OECD Working Paper shows that even for those adults who want to improve their reading and numeracy skills, it is not easy to translate that interest into action. Adults with busy working and family lives have little time for learning – as is evident in the high rate of dropout from learning programmes targeted to adults. And even when adults do acquire basic skills in mid-life, they find few jobs open to them in which they can use those skills.

Building and sustaining learner motivation

Research shows that programmes to improve adults’ basic skills need to use awareness-raising measures (like the adult education weeks promoted in Denmark and Finland) and national campaigns (as conducted in France and Luxembourg) to encourage interested, but reluctant adults to participate. Guidance services, such as Germany’s telephone counselling service for adults with poor literacy skills, also help. Learner persistence can be supported through clear learning goals, continued guidance throughout the programme, and the link of basic skills with occupational credentials (for example learning geometry in carpentry). Contextualised learning, whereby basic skills are learned in the work, family or community context, often in combination with occupational skills training, can help to engage adults not normally involved in continuing education. Formative assessment, using frequent assessment and feedback to guide adults in their learning, encourages them to continue their studies.

Teachers need to be well-prepared

Although research shows that high-quality, well-qualified teachers get the best results with adult learners, many adult education teachers have few relevant qualifications, and often resort to teaching practices normally used with children which are unlikely to work for adults. There is no nationally recognised certification for adult education in the United States; Austria and Germany only recently developed specific qualifications for such teachers; and in many countries, adult education programmes that teach basic skills are largely staffed by volunteers.


Successful adult learning programmes need to motivate and sustain the engagement of low-skilled adults; offer a highly skilled teaching force; use proven approaches to basic skills teaching; and make use of relevant learning contexts, including the family and the workplace. Learning basic literacy and numeracy skills is, literally, essential for leading a productive and engaged life.

Adults with low literacy and numeracy skills: A literature review on policy interventions
OECD study Putting the Survey of Adult Skills to Work: Country Studies and Policy Analysis OECD Skills Survey
Photo Credit: Skills for success. Box of pills with a list of positive qualities for employment @Shutterstock

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Teachers in the digital world

by Katarzyna Kubacka
Analyst, Education and Skills Directorate

Rapid developments in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) have made it an important part of our daily lives, from staying in contact with people, to checking traffic and booking tickets. However, ICT can also be a useful tool for teachers in advancing 21st century learning. As the new Teaching in Focus (TIF) brief ‘Teaching with technology’ reports, the use of ICT for students’ projects or class work is an active teaching practice that promotes skills for students’ lifelong success.

So how common is the use of ICT in the classrooms?  Across the countries and economies participating in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), it seems that ICT is still used less frequently than more passive teaching methods, such as working in exercise books. For example, over 70% of TALIS teachers report checking students’ exercise books frequently, while only 38% report frequently using ICT. This is surprising given the prevalence of ICT in most students’ lives across TALIS countries and economies. 

One possible reason for teachers’ infrequent use of technology is the lack of resources in their schools. Indeed, between 30 and 40% of TALIS teachers work in schools where principals report that shortages in ICT-related materials hinder the provision of quality education. This finding should send a strong signal that there is a need for more investment in the provision of computers, software and internet access in the TALIS education systems with an especially high percentage of teachers working in under-resourced schools.

Low rates of ICT use in classrooms is also affected by teachers’ need for professional development. New technological inventions and novel ways of using technology in the classrooms are constantly being developed, meaning that teachers may need help with keeping up to date. TALIS findings show that the majority of teachers across TALIS countries and economies report moderate or high needs for professional development in the area of ICT skills for teaching. Comprehensive development programs in order to effectively implement ICT into their classroom practices would be of benefit for many teachers. 

We can see that different factors hinder teachers’ use of ICT in TALIS countries and economies. While some systems need to invest more in the provision of the necessary resources, there is also a need for in-depth support for teachers in almost all TALIS countries and economies. As with most methods, the effectiveness of ICT in advancing teaching and learning depends on the way it is used in the classrooms. Hence, comprehensive professional development should be tailored to teachers’ particular needs if education systems want to harness ICT’s potential for effective teaching and learning. 

A Teacher’s Guide to TALIS 2013
Photo Credit: Faculty Lecture @Shutterstock

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Easing the learning journey for immigrant students

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Put yourself in their place: if you were new to a country and barely able to communicate in the local language, how do you think you’d do in school – particularly if you were living in a poor neighbourhood and attending a school with inadequate resources? It might come as a surprise to learn that, in some countries, immigrant students perform better in mathematics than their non-immigrant peers. Does that say more about the individual students or about the education systems in their host countries? 

Between 2003 and 2012, the percentage of students who were raised in immigrant families grew by around 3 percentage points across OECD countries. At the same time, as this month’s PISA in Focus notes, migration policies in some countries became increasingly selective while education outcomes in many countries of origin improved considerably. As a result, larger proportions of immigrant students are arriving in their host countries with better-educated parents. For example, in Ireland in 2003, more than 40% of immigrant students were raised by a mother who had not attained upper secondary education; by 2012, this was true of only 9% of immigrant students. 

Across OECD countries in 2003, non-immigrant students scored 47 points higher in mathematics (PISA 2012 Results) than immigrant students; by 2012, that performance difference had shrunk by around 10 score points. In Canada, Ireland and New Zealand, immigrant and non-immigrant students scored equally well in mathematics in 2012 while in Australia, Hungary and Macao-China, immigrants outscored non-immigrants. In Germany, the performance gap grew closer to the OECD average between 2003 and 2012, as the share of immigrant students performing below the baseline level of proficiency in mathematics decreased by 11 percentage points. 

These improvements in outcomes cannot be achieved by just shutting the door on all poor, less-educated immigrant families; and it would be a mistake to underestimate the talent and motivation of immigrant students from disadvantaged families. PISA data show that in Australia, Israel and the United States, the share of disadvantaged students performing in the top quarter of all PISA students is larger among immigrants than among non-immigrants (PISA 2012 Results, Volume II). And the performance gap in mathematics related to immigrant background shrinks by less than half after accounting for differences in socio-economic status (from 37 to 23 score points across OECD countries with data for 2003 and 2012). In other words, many students manage to overcome the double disadvantage of poverty and an immigrant background and do well in school – and beyond. Of course, not all poor immigrants will become Nobel Prize laureates like Mario Capecchi or Daniel Tsui; and  few people win Nobel Prizes. But if immigrant students cannot fulfill their potential, then everybody loses.

The key to unleashing the potential of all immigrant students is to reduce the disadvantages that usually make it harder for immigrant students to succeed at school. The crunch point is not the point of entry, but the myriad points thereafter, when educators and school systems decide whether or not to offer programmes specifically designed to help immigrant students succeed. Put yourself in their place…

Photo Credit: Multiracial Group of Friends with Hands in Stack, Teamwork @Shutterstock

Friday, July 03, 2015

Are vocational programmes preparing school leavers for a risky job market?

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

Employment rates among adults with upper secondary education as highest level of education attained, by type of programme 25-34 year-olds (2013)

One of the most dramatic consequences of the economic crisis has been the soaring levels of youth unemployment in several OECD countries; and the hesitant recovery of the past years was insufficient to improve the job prospects of young people. At the end of the first quarter of 2013, youth unemployment rates still exceeded 25% in nine OECD countries, including Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. High youth unemployment is a huge waste of human potential and an unacceptable social tragedy.

Unemployment is a consequence of economic recession and the resulting dearth of jobs. At the same time, high youth unemployment reveals the weak spots in the connections between education and training systems and labour markets. When demand for labour weakens, differences become more visible between education and training systems that are preparing young people well for employability and those that are performing this service less well. The transition between school and work is the first link to break. That’s why the numbers of NEET (“Not in Employment, Education or Training”) is such an important indicator. In 2013, 39 million 16-29 year-olds across OECD countries were out of school and unemployed. About half of them were not even actively looking for a job and seem to have disappeared off the radar screens of their countries’ social institutions.

OECD countries are looking for ways to fine-tune education and training systems so that they respond better to labour market needs. Learning from other countries that manage to develop students’ employability through their education systems is a helpful strategy, and the OECD assists countries in this effort. The recently published OECD Skills Outlook 2015 brings together the wealth of data and evidence on employability policies to better prepare youth for the labour market. And the just-published Education Indicators in Focus brief discusses how vocational education and training (VET) programmes in upper secondary education can help to improve employability.

On average across the OECD and G20 countries with available data, some 41% of all upper secondary education students are enrolled in a VET programme, but the variation among countries ranges from more to 70% in 4 countries to less than 20% in 8 countries. In many countries, VET programmes are still a marginal phenomenon in a predominantly academically oriented upper secondary education system. And even in countries with well-established vocational tracks, VET programmes still suffer from a lack of recognition and respect from policy makers, parents and the general public. Yet, high-quality VET programmes tend to be effective in developing skills among those who would otherwise lack qualifications to ensure a smooth and successful transition into the labour market.

Across OECD countries for which data are available, 78% of 25-34 year-olds with a vocational upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualification are employed – a rate that is 11 percentage points higher than that among individuals with a general upper secondary education as their highest qualification (see chart above). And the difference in employment rates are marked in systems with well-developed vocational education systems, such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. As the brief notes, the best indicator of the strength of upper secondary vocational education is the presence of a work-based learning component. It is no coincidence that the employment benefit of upper secondary vocational education programmes is relatively higher in those countries with strong apprenticeship or other work-based learning components integrated into them.

Sure, academic tracks in upper secondary education are primarily oriented to preparing students for tertiary education. But these data clearly show that for those students who are not pursuing tertiary education, academic tracks do not prepare these youth for entry into the labour market as well as vocational programmes do. Drop-outs, early school leavers and students who fail to obtain a qualification are the most vulnerable in making the transition to work; but students who leave education with an academic upper secondary education as their highest level of education also suffer when an economic recession makes the transition from school to work even more difficult. Preparing young people well for the job market, either through high-quality vocational programmes in upper secondary or post-secondary education or by ensuring successful entry into tertiary education, is probably the most important mission of education systems today.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 33, by Diogo Amaro de Paula,  Éric Charbonnier and Margarita Kalamova 
Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 33, French version
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators:
Chart Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance database.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What computer skills can do for you

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Information and communication technologies (ICT) permeate every aspect of our lives, from how we work, to how we “talk” with friends, to how we participate in political processes. But what are the returns to “digital skills” – the capacity to use digital devices and applications to access and manage information and solve problems – on the labour market? Do they help land a job or earn higher wages?

Our new OECD report, Adults, Computers and Problem Solving: What’s the Problem? provides first-of-its-kind answers to such questions. Based on results from the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the report demonstrates the impact of the ability to use digital devices to solve problems in everyday life and at work on the likelihood of participating in the labour force and on workers’ wages.

Does having greater proficiency in solving problems using digital devices increase chances of participating in the labour force?

The labour force participation rate among adults with the highest levels of skills in solving problems using digital devices (Level 2 or 3 in the 2012 survey) was 6 percentage points higher than that among adults with the lowest level of proficiency in those skills (below Level 1), on average across participating countries. At Level 2 or 3 adults can complete tasks like evaluating search-engine results against a set of criteria, solving a scheduling problem by combining information from an Internet application and several e-mail messages, and transforming information in an e-mail message into a spreadsheet and performing computations with it.

In turn, adults with the lowest level (below Level 1) of proficiency in solving problems using digital devices and applications had a higher rate of labour force participation – 15 percentage points higher – than adults who had no experience in using digital devices at all, even after accounting for various factors like age, gender, level of education, proficiency in literacy and use of e-mail in everyday life. Those adults can still type, manipulate a mouse, drag and drop content, and highlight text, but they have very little capacity in using these skills to solve common problems encountered when working in digital environments, such as browsing the web for information. Clearly, the labour market advantage of having even basic digital skills is huge.

What about the chances of earning higher wages?

Workers who have no experience in using digital devices earn 6% less per hour, on average, than those who perform at the lowest level in solving problems using digital applications, even after accounting for factors such as age, gender, educational attainment, proficiency in literacy and numeracy, use of e-mail at work, and occupation. So workers with no experience in using digital devices and applications suffer a serious wage penalty. Just over 9% of adults reported that they never use digital devices, such as computers or tablets. This ranged from around 2% in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, to over 15% in Italy, Korea, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Spain.

In contrast, 26% of the wage premium associated with workers who are the most proficient at problem solving using digital applications, compared with those who are the least proficient, disappears when those factors are taken into account. In other words, the wage premium associated with the highest level of proficiency is largely due to other factors, such as workers’ educational attainment, proficiency in literacy and numeracy, and the use of e-mail at work, rather than their greater proficiency in solving problems in digital environments.

Does it matter how often these skills are used at work?

It seems that frequent use of digital applications in the workplace also pays off. The labour force participation rate among workers who use e-mail frequently in their jobs, for example, was nearly 6 percentage points higher, and these workers earned 9% more per hour, on average, than workers who are equally proficient in literacy, numeracy and problem solving using digital technologies, but who rarely use e-mail. So, digital skills must be put to frequent use in the workplace if they are to make a difference in labour force participation and wages.

Given the findings from our new report, it’s clear that governments, education providers and business need to ensure that all adults have access to digital technologies and networks, and are given opportunities to develop their proficiency in using them. Opting out of this increasingly wired world is no longer a viable option.

Adults, Computers and Problem Solving: What's the Problem?
The Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
Adult Skills in Focus No. 1: Does having digital skills really pay off? by William Thorn and Ji Eun Chung
Adult Skills in Focus No. 1: Les compétences numériques : un investissement vraiment rentable? by William Thorn and Ji Eun Chung
Image credit: © OECD