Thursday, November 26, 2015

How can we compare education systems that are so different?

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

Comparison of levels of education between ISCED 2011 and ISCED-97

Imagine three families accidentally meeting in a bar of a hotel in a sunny tourist location. They start discussing the schooling of their children and their professional futures. One Danish couple has young children aged 11 and 14, both attending the ‘Basic School’. The Dutch couple thinks that the oldest son probably has not performed well in school because he seems to have been repeating some grades in primary school. Their own daughter is around 25 and is following a short programme at an institution of higher education, which the parents describe as an “associate degree”. The third couple, French, assumes that, given the girl’s age, this must be a kind of specialisation following the license. Their own son has a license, which the Danish and Dutch couples interpret as a master’s degree. The schooling of their respective children is clearly a sensitive topic, because none of the three couples wants to enter into much detail: they’re afraid that the other couples would not fully appreciate the prestige and status of their child’s educational career. The result is confusion.

This is akin to what happened many years ago when education experts and policy makers started to meet and discuss education policies. A Babylonian confusion of terminology – with words only comprehensible to the citizens of a given country but incomprehensible to foreigners – made any reasonable discussion nearly impossible. In many cases, even experts did not understand that “Basic School” in Denmark covers the first nine grades, or that a Dutch “associate degree” is a short vocational programme of post-secondary but non-tertiary education that people sometimes pursue after some years of work experience, or that a French license is equivalent to a bachelor’s, not a master’s, degree.

People quickly started to realise that if ever international collaboration in education were successful, they needed instruments to make their systems comparable – instruments that could translate the peculiarities of their own systems into a universally understandable “language”. Especially when pioneers started to collect statistical data on education systems, such tools became absolutely indispensable.

The first edition of the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) was developed by UNESCO in the mid-1970s. It was quickly adopted by other international organisations, such as the OECD, the World Bank and Eurostat. The classification was first revised by UNESCO, OECD and EUROSTAT in 1997 (ISCED-97), and then again between 2009 and 2011 to create ISCED 2011, adopted in November 2011. The 2015 edition of Education at a Glance is the first major collection of data using the new classification. ISCED is the reference framework for classifying and comparing educational programmes and their “levels” – the tool to make systems transparent and comprehensible across countries.

Of course, classifying education programmes is a sensitive topic. Not only families but also countries attach prestige and status to education programmes and the institutions that deliver them. This is what makes mapping such programmes so difficult. But using ISCED is also an activity of international understanding and peer learning. Mapping and classifying programmes is not something done by bureaucrats behind their desks in international organisations, but by peers from countries working together. In a global international labour market, where credentials define access to jobs, earnings and social status, it makes a difference how specific programmes are classified.

Education systems are not static; they change. There have been some important changes at both ends of the education ladder recently: in early childhood or
“pre-primary” education, at one end, and in tertiary or higher education at the other. It is precisely in these two areas that the most recent revision makes the greatest difference. The instrument now has a precise classification for early learning, which has become so important politically. And in higher education, there has been general adoption of the bachelor’s/master’s model.

Probably the families at the bar will not resume their discussion by referring to ISCED levels. But at least among experts, developers and users of educational statistics and indicators, the use of the new ISCED is a tremendously important step forward. If educators and policy makers want to understand each other and learn from each other, a common language is necessary. ISCED 2011 provides them with the tool to understand the various levels of education.

ISCED 2011 Operational Manual: Guidelines for Classifying National Education Programmes and Related Qualifications
Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Got a question about education? Education at a Glance probably has the answer

by Andreas Schleicher  
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills 

Does education really pay off? Has public spending on education been affected by the economic crisis? How are education and employment related?

You’ll find the answers to these and just about any other question you may have about the state of education in the world today in Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, published today. Did you know, for example, that
tertiary-educated adults earn about 60% more, on average, than adults with upper secondary as their highest level of educational attainment? Or that between 2010 and 2012, as countries’ GDP began to rise following the economic slowdown, public expenditure on education fell in more than one in three OECD countries?

This year’s edition of the annual compendium of education statistics includes more than 100 charts, 150 tables and links to another 150 tables on line. It also contains more detailed analyses of participation in early childhood and tertiary levels of education; data on the impact of skills on employment and earnings, gender differences in education and employment; educational and social mobility; adults’ ability and readiness to use information and communication technologies; how education is financed; and information on teachers, from their salaries and hours spent teaching to information on recess and breaks during the school day.

We invite you to take a good long look – and learn.

Press release
Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators
Regards sur l'éducation 2015: Les indicateurs de l'OCDE

Follow #OECDEAG on Twitter: @OECDEduSkills
Photo credit: ©OECD 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Are American students overtested? Listen to what students themselves say

by Andreas Schleicher 
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills 

One of the claims one hears frequently these days is that American students have no time for learning because they are permanently subjected to standardised testing, while Finnish students, in turn, live in that paradise where high learning outcomes are achieved by everyone without any testing.

It is actually very hard to find comparative data on the prevalence of testing in OECD countries. So to explore this, we asked 15-year-old students who participated in the PISA assessment how frequently they take part in standardised tests. And over the years I have learned to trust the reports of students on what actually happens in the classroom more than the claims of many experts.

Here is what I found: 34% of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands said they take a standardised test at least once a month, 21% of students in Israel said so, and on average across OECD countries 8% of students so reported. In the United States, only 2% of students said they took standardised tests at least once a month. By the way, that turns out to be exactly the same share as in Finland.

Some 97% of American 15-year-olds said they took a standardised test at least once or twice a year, again about the same share as in Finland. Across OECD countries, an average of 76% of students so reported. Some 40% of American
15-year-olds took such tests at least three to five times a year, compared with 16% in Finland and 17% on average across countries. Interestingly, on some other forms of assessments, like student portfolios, Finland comes out far ahead of the United States.

Now, some will say these data are from 2009 and things might have changed since then. But we asked the same question again in the 2015 PISA assessment; those results will be disclosed next year. So watch this space.

Photo credit: Students sitting tests @Shutterstock

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Now more than ever

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

It is difficult for us here in Paris to think about much else beside the innocents who lost their lives last week during the senseless, brutal attack that shook our city. Our thoughts are with their families and loved ones; our spirit remains firmly fixed on the values we cherish: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

In the aftermath of these horrific events, fraternité becomes more than an ideal; it is the necessary glue that binds our societies together. It is in this context that we invite you to consider what PISA results show about the crucial role schools play in building our communities, particularly for immigrant students. A full report on this issue will be published in the near future.


Thursday, November 05, 2015

Korea’s future prosperity depends on skills

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

 Productivity gains of better matching the skills acquired in education with those required on the job are potentially large for Korea, 2012
The Korean economy has seen significant growth in the past decades.

However, much of the economic growth has been supported by intensive labour resource utilisation. Korean workers work the second longest hours among OECD countries. This is not sustainable in the long-term because Korea’s working age population is projected to decline from 2017 onwards. The growth rate of GDP per capita is on a downward trend.

Ensuring that Korea’s economy continues on the path to growth will mean raising employment levels and increasing the labour productivity of its workforce. Skills are central to both higher employment levels and productivity growth. Better skills, effective labour market policies and stronger incentives to work and hire can raise employment levels. And improving the quality and relevance of skills, as well as the effective use of skills in workplaces, is essential for increasing productivity.

Now is the time to fully harness Korea’s economic potential, by raising productivity and developing a highly skilled workforce across all age groups. Skills and human capital must be the centrepiece of policy measures to support entrepreneurship, drive innovation and productivity while delivering inclusive growth for all.

Identifying skills challenges, together

In the course of 2013 and 2014, a multidisciplinary team of OECD experts worked in collaboration with Korean ministries and a wide range of stakeholders to assess the challenges to crafting a more effective national skills strategy for Korea. Maintaining and building upon this unique whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach will be critical for addressing the challenges identified in the OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Korea.

Over the past decades, Korea has made significant progress in increasing participation in education and raising educational attainment levels. Korean students are among the best performing students internationally. A number of recent reforms have aimed at expanding participation in vocational education and training and building smoother pathways from education to the world of work. Korea has also introduced significant initiatives such the National Competency Standards to make skills development more relevant for the labour market. Reforms have been introduced to promote entrepreneurship and stimulate employment growth while fostering the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises and boosting the business sector.

Yet challenges remain.

Many young people are having difficulties transitioning from education to employment even with university degrees. Female employment rates decline significantly after marriage and childbirth, despite the relatively high skill and tertiary attainment levels of women in Korea. Many older workers have low skills and are forced after involuntary early retirement to become self-employed or work in non-regular positions with poor working conditions and low wages. There remain many barriers and disincentives to hiring and supplying skills in the labour market. More needs to be done to leverage the skills of the existing workforce to boost productivity growth and foster innovation.

Korea’s 12 skills challenges 

Today, the results of the diagnostic phase of this collaborative project are published as the OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Korea.

With regard to developing relevant skills, the report concludes that Korea should focus its efforts on:
  • Tackling the overemphasis on academic studies and higher education
  • Fostering entrepreneurship and skills for a creative economy
  • Enhancing adult skills through lifelong learning and education

When it comes to activating its skills supply, Korea will need to tackle the challenges of:
  • Activating women while balancing work and family life
  • Facilitating the school-to-work transition for youth
  • Activating older workers while improving their skills and welfare 

Furthermore, Korea could make more effective use of the skills it has by:
  • Improving the quality of current and future jobs
  • Reducing skills mismatches by making skills visible and using skills effectively
  • Identifying and anticipating skills needs to make effective use of skills

Finally, Korea could strengthen its overall skills system by:
  • Promoting policy coherence and inter-linkages
  • Strengthening the whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to address skills
  • Improving the coordination and collaboration across levels of government to improve skills outcomes.

Taking action on skills

The pressing need for a whole of government approach to skills emerges clearly in the case of Korea. None of these skills challenges can be tackled by ministries working in isolation, nor can they be solved by government alone. Korea’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 Korea as it designs and implements better skills policies for better jobs and better lives.

OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Korea
Executive Summary in English
Executive Summary in Korean
12 Skills Challenges for Korea PPT
See also the country page on skills for Korea
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:
Chart source: ©OECD

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Knowledge is power: ensuring quality early childhood education and care provision

by Ineke Litjens
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Leaving a child at a nursery, crèche, pre-school or day care centre for the first time can be a daunting experience for a parent. While the small child’s tears may soon turn to laughter as they play with new toys and meet new friends, the parent may sit at home or at work checking their phone and worrying that their child is not being well looked after.

This is a reality for an increasing number of parents as more and more children participate in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings, partly due to the extension of legal entitlements to a place, free access, and subsidised parental fees or provision. This increased participation has led to governments, as well as parents, taking a keen interest in the quality of provision, because quality is key to ensuring benefits for young children, particularly those with disadvantaged backgrounds. In high quality learning environments, children develop a good basis for social, basic literacy and numeracy skills which are important for future educational success.

An essential part of making sure that all children receive high quality early childhood education and care is to monitor the providers of this care. Understanding whether provisions meet the regulations and standards, how staff are performing, and how children are developing can inform policy makers and identify where improvements are needed. This information also informs parents about the level of quality provided, allowing them to make informed decisions about their choice of provision.

The latest report in the OECD’s Starting Strong series reviews the monitoring systems of 24 jurisdictions and reveals that monitoring does not merely encompass regulatory compliance but is moving towards better understanding what is happening inside an ECEC setting and how a child develops in several areas:

  • Service and staff quality: These are the most commonly monitored areas, and are usually monitored through inspections or self-evaluations. Monitoring of these aspects is often mandatory and mainly focuses on regulatory aspects such as staff-child ratios, group size and staff qualifications or curriculum implementation. 
  • Child development and outcomes: These are mostly monitored through observations rather than tests as used in primary and secondary schools. Monitoring children’s early development has a broad, holistic focus, concentrating on language and literacy skills, as well as socio-emotional, motor and health development. 
  • Staff and child interaction: Interest is growing in monitoring process quality to ensure the quality of interaction between staff and children, to improve staff practices and identify staff training needs. 

In addition, we found that early childhood monitoring is frequently aligned with the primary school monitoring system, which allows a more continuous early childhood development experience, and because tools used in monitoring practices are usually decided at the local level, actual practices differ between regions or even provisions. Lastly, results of monitoring quality, at least for aggregated results, are often shared with the general public, resulting in more transparency.

The increase in monitoring activities across countries is a positive move. But monitoring and evaluating quality can be a complex task. Starting Strong IV highlights some key aspects to keep in mind when designing or revising monitoring systems:

  1. Clarify the purposes for monitoring: This ensures all people involved are “on the same path” in terms of objectives and consequences. 
  2. Develop a coherent monitoring framework for different settings: This ensures an even level of quality and can contribute to better transitions for children moving between different settings. 
  3. Link monitoring of staff quality to professional development: Training as a result of staff evaluation can lead to quality improvements and better staff practices for child development. Don’t allow monitoring efforts to go to waste!
  4. Do not underestimate the demands of monitoring on staff: Keep in mind that monitoring requires time and increases staff members’ workload and stress. 
  5. Value the voices of staff, parents and children: Different points of view are important in understanding how quality and performance is perceived, and may provide some valuable insights into the strengths and challenges of the system. 

“Knowledge is power” is an often-used phrase, but when it comes to making sure that children have the best start in life, it is a phrase that rings true. Through knowing which systems are working well and what makes them work well, governments can ensure that high quality childcare is provided, and parents can be empowered to make informed decisions that will help put them at ease when leaving their child for the first time.

Photo credit: ©

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The innovation imperative and the design of learning systems

by David Istance
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Education has become increasingly important worldwide, including politically. Probably the key driver for this is economic – the fundamental role of knowledge and skills in underpinning and maintaining prosperity. No argument has more political purchase today regarding education’s value than that it enhances competitiveness. These developments create an appetite for reform and innovation, often manifest as favouring “learning” over “education”, and a readiness to disrupt accepted institutional arrangements as too slow to change, too inward-looking, and too detached from the economic shifts taking place globally and locally.

This represents a very different starting point for innovation compared with the longstanding educational ambition to realise more holistic opportunities and promote individual development. From this perspective, the problem is not that the institutions of education are too detached from the economy, but that they are too close, and are pulled to narrow their curricula and instil only superficial knowledge and not deep understanding. The charge is also that education systems are profoundly inequitable, too driven by sorting and selecting and not organised for the optimisation of learning.

There is another constituency with an interest in innovation. Innovating learning environments offer a far more promising route for enhancing the attractiveness of teaching than backward-looking definitions of professionalism seen as the right of the individual teacher to be left undisturbed in his or her own classroom.

The differences of the critiques and constituencies notwithstanding, they coalesce around the urgent need to innovate the fundamentals of schooling: to address the low visibility of teacher work and their isolation in highly fragmented classroom arrangements, the low engagement of too many of the main players (especially students), conformity and highly unequal learning outcomes.

Some 26 school systems (countries, regions, networks) participated in the final part of the OECD Innovative Learning Environments project by submitting their own initiatives for innovating learning beyond single schools or organisations. The synthesis report that emerged from this project, Schooling Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systems, is published today.

The report summarises the strategies that lead to innovation as a series of Cs: culture change; clarifying focus; creating professional capacity; collaboration and co-operation; communication technologies and platforms; and change agents.

The book emphasises the importance of design, and for that read “leadership”. In complex school systems, leadership can include many more actors – such as community players, families and foundations – besides those usually involved in designing curricula and classrooms. Government leadership remains fundamental, however, because of its legitimacy, breadth and capacity to unlock resources. Governments have a privileged role in starting and sustaining change, and in regulating, incentivising and accelerating it. But this does not have to mean “micro-managing”.

For example, New Zealand’s “Learning and Change Networks” is a government-initiated strategy to establish a web of knowledge-sharing networks among schools, families, teachers, leaders, communities, professional providers and the Ministry of Education. Network participants work collaboratively to accelerate student achievement in grades 1 to 8 and address equity issues.

Austria’s “New Secondary School” reform was initiated by the government in 2008 and has since been mandated to be phased in completely by 2018. It is introduced in individual schools through school-based change agents (Lerndesigners) who themselves work collaboratively as networks. The recently established National Center for Learning Schools provides materials and organisation for these change agents.

The report elaborates what an innovative learning environment would look like, not just in individual schools but across a whole system. For example, schools and classrooms would be characterised by the “buzz” of collegial activity and have many students learning outside conventional classrooms; learner voice would be prominent, including in leadership, right across school systems; educators would discuss and practice learning strategies collaboratively, and personalise these strategies for individual learners; learners and educators would use digital resources and social media innovatively for teaching, learning and professional exchanges; there would be a dominant practice of self-review and use of evidence to inform design; and there would be dense networks of collaboration across districts, networks, chains and communities of practice.

How interesting it would be to be able to measure progress towards this vision, to supplement the more conventional education statistics and indicators!

Photo credit: © Inmagine LTD

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It’s a matter of self-confidence

by Francesca Borgonovi
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

A sense of self-efficacy is essential if students are to fulfil their potential. Yet too many students, particularly disadvantaged students, do not have confidence in their ability to tackle mathematics tasks. This month's
PISA in Focus reveals that mathematics self-efficacy is strongly associated with mathematics performance, and that disadvantaged students are less likely to feel confident about their ability to tackle specific mathematics tasks than advantaged students, even when comparing students who perform similarly in mathematics.

Countries with higher mean performance in mathematics are those where students are more likely to report feeling confident about being able to solve a range of pure and applied mathematics problems. However, a positive relationship can also be seen within countries: students who have less mathematics self-efficacy perform worse in mathematics than students who are confident about their ability to handle mathematics tasks. On average across OECD countries, mathematics self-efficacy is associated with a difference of 49 score points in mathematics – the equivalent of one year of school. In 23 countries and economies, the difference in mathematics performance that is associated with students’ self-efficacy is 50 points or more; in Liechtenstein, Chinese Taipei and Viet Nam, the difference is at least 60 points.

The relationship between mathematics self-efficacy and mathematics performance is mutually reinforcing: better performance in mathematics leads to greater self-efficacy. But students who have less mathematics self-efficacy are at greater risk of underperforming in mathematics, regardless of their actual abilities. Why? Because when students do not believe in their ability to accomplish particular tasks, they do not exert the effort needed to complete the tasks successfully.

How can education systems and families encourage students to be proficient and self-confident in their abilities in mathematics?

First, families can help students to become confident learners by giving them support and encouragement. In 2012, 11 education systems distributed a questionnaire to the parents of students who took the PISA test. The responses to this questionnaire reveal that, when comparing students with similar academic performance and socio-economic status, those whose parents expected that they would enter university generally reported greater mathematics self-efficacy than those whose parents did not hold such high expectations for them.

Second, PISA reveals that there is a strong connection between how confident students feel about being able to solve specific pure and applied mathematics problems, and whether or not they were exposed to similar problems in class. However, while almost all students who reported that they had frequently encountered pure mathematics problems feel confident about solving such problems, task exposure is less strongly associated with self-efficacy when it comes to applied mathematics. This difference could be due to the fact that applied mathematics problems are, by nature, more ambiguous and diverse, and solving applied mathematics problems generally requires a good understanding of both the underlying problem and the context in which the problem is set.

What PISA tells us is that, in mathematics, seeing (mathematics tasks at school) is believing (in yourself).

PISA in Focus No. 56: How confident are students in their ability to solve mathematics problems? Francesca Borgonovi
PISA á la loupe No. 56: Quelle confiance les élèves ont-ils en leur capacité à résoudre des problèmes de mathématiques?
PISA 2012 Results: Ready to Learn (Vol. III) Student's Engagement, Drive and Self-Beliefs
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
PISA 2012 Results
Photo Credit: Schoolgirl with glasses solving math problem on blackboard @Shutterstock

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Does social background thwart aspirations for higher education?

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

Percentage of students who expect to complete a university degree, by socio-economic status (ESCS*), PISA 2009

Since the mid-1900s, the expansion of higher education systems has opened up opportunities for many students other than those from the elites. Higher education became the main route towards upward social mobility. Many countries designed policies to support more socially equitable, or “democratic”, access to universities, mainly by developing financial support mechanisms that compensate students from less well-off families for the study and opportunity costs associated with further education. It was seen as an essential characteristic of democracy that meritocratic access to higher education for talented and capable youth was ensured.

We now know that the social and political benefits that were expected to result from widening access to higher education were grossly overstated. In many countries, talented individuals from the middle classes and, exceptionally, the lower classes gained access to universities and benefitted from social mobility. Universities were transformed from elite schools to modern educational institutions, preparing large numbers of students for professional careers. But the expansion of the system, in itself, did not equalise education opportunities; many on the bottom rungs of the social ladder remain deprived of access to high-quality university education.

The recently published Education Indicators in Focus brief synthesises the international data currently available on the impact of social background on access to and success in higher education. The data are sobering: on average across countries that participated in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), an individual with a parent who completed higher education is 4.5 times more likely to attend university than an individual whose parents have below upper secondary education as their highest level of educational attainment. In some countries, like Italy and Poland, the odds that a student with highly educated parents will attend university is almost ten times higher than for a child of low-educated parents; in the United States, the likelihood is nearly seven times greater. By contrast, in Canada, Korea, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, a young person with highly educated parents is less than three times as likely to attend university as a peer with low-educated parents.

For a long time the dominant opinion among policy makers was that unequal access to higher education was mainly a financial issue. Poorer families lacked the financial means to invest in longer and more expensive education. Policies thus concentrated on providing free access and public funding to universities, and on financial support mechanisms for students from poor families. But as governments need to prioritise public expenditure in a context of austerity and fiscal constraints, these policies come under increasing pressure.

Financial compensation is now perceived as an inefficient public policy instrument to encourage talented individuals from poor families to enrol in higher education. Also, a better understanding of the high private return on investment in higher education, and the perception that public funding for higher education is an organised transfer of wealth, have prompted a shift in public policy towards private expenditure, which now accounts for 32% of total expenditure on higher education. Even if countries still use financial incentives and support mechanisms to guarantee access to deserving students from poorer backgrounds, these policy instruments are no longer regarded as the only, or the best, vehicles for ensuring equality of opportunity in higher education.

Recent research offers other insights. First, unequal access is the result of cultural rather than financial mechanisms. Second, inequality at the gates of the university is the culmination of a long process of socially biased selection from the very beginning of formal education. The expansion of higher education might have changed the values and preferences in the middle classes towards a more meritocratic and achievement-oriented view, but that has not yet happened among the lowest classes.

PISA provides ample evidence of the strong impact of socio-economic status on learning outcomes, achievement and motivation of 15-year-old students. The chart above provides a powerful representation of this. Based on PISA 2009 data, it shows the huge disparity in expectations to complete a university degree among 15-year-old students from different social backgrounds. Even after accounting for reading and mathematics performance, the difference in expectations remains large.

Personal motivation and aspirations are much more difficult to address through policy than financial barriers. The risk is that governments might see the challenge as simply too big and too complicated to handle, especially at a time when concerns about over-schooling and overcrowded universities prevail. At the same time, governments underestimate the hidden cost of socially skewed higher education. Leaving reservoirs of human capital untapped comes at a high economic and social price. Not only is it morally unfair, but it is a serious threat to the inclusiveness of modern societies.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 35, by Corinne Heckmann and Camila De Moraes
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
*ESCS refers to the PISA index of economics, social and cultural status. See Volume II of the PISA 2012 Results for more information. Countries are ranked in descending order of percentage of students with a low ESCS who expect to complete a university degree. Source: OECD (2012), Grade Expectations: How Marks and Education Policies Shape Students'Ambitions, PISA

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