All that money can’t buy

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education 
We can now add something else to the growing list of things money alone can’t buy: love, happiness–and strong performance in PISA. Results from PISA 2009 show that there is a threshold beyond which a country’s wealth is unrelated to its overall score in PISA.

Among moderately wealthy economies whose per capita GDP is up to around USD 20 000 (Estonia, Hungary, the Slovak Republic and the partner country Croatia, for example), the greater the country’s wealth, the higher its mean score on the
PISA reading test. But PISA results indicate that above this threshold of USD 20 000 in per capita GDP, national wealth is no longer a good predictor of a country’s mean performance in PISA. And the amount these high-income countries devote to education also appears to have little relation to their overall performance in PISA. PISA looked at cumulative expenditure on education–the total dollar amount spent on educating a student from the age of 6 to the age of 15–and found that, after a threshold of about USD 35 000 per student, expenditure is unrelated to performance. For example, countries that spend more than USD 100 000 per student from the age of 6 to 15, such as Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and the United States, show similar levels of performance as countries that spend less than half that amount per student, such as Estonia, Hungary and Poland. Meanwhile, New Zealand, a top performer in PISA, spends a lower-than-average amount per student from the age of 6 to 15.

So what is it that makes a country a strong performer in PISA? Its decisions on how it spends the money that it does invest in education. PISA results show that the strongest performers among high-income countries and economies tend to invest more in teachers. For example, lower secondary teachers in Korea and the partner economy of Hong Kong-China, two high-performing systems in the PISA reading tests, earn more than twice the per capita GDP in their respective countries. The countries that perform well in PISA tend to attract the best students into the teaching profession by offering them higher salaries and greater professional status. They also tend to prioritise investment in teachers over smaller classes.

Successful PISA countries also invest something else in their education systems: high expectations for all of their students. Schools and teachers in these systems do not allow struggling students to fail; they do not make them repeat a grade, they do not transfer them to other schools, nor do they group students into different classes based on ability. Regardless of a country’s or economy’s wealth, school systems that commit themselves, both in resources and in policies, to ensuring that all students succeed perform better in PISA than systems that tend to separate out poor performers or students with behavioural problems or special needs.

So when it comes to money and education, the question isn’t how much? but rather for what?

For more information:
on PISA:
PISA in Focus N°13: Does money buy strong performance in PISA?
Full set of PISA in Focus:
Video Series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

Video: Singapore: Building a strong and effective teaching force
From the series of videos on Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, produced jointly by the OECD and the Pearson Foundation


Anonymous said…
The teachers' earns in Spain are high, but the performance in PISA is medium. There are important diferences in tearchers earning between spaninsh regions ("comunidades autónomas"), but the region with best earnings is not the regions with best performance.
Alex Jones said…
Isn't a fairly strong correlation between top PISA performers and small, relatively wealthy and culturally homogeneous states?
Guillermo Montt said…
To Anonymous:

Performance in PISA is the result the quality of teachers as well as many other factors. In particular, we find that the extent to which countries commit to making all students achieve by not differentiating struggling students through grade repetition, transfers or streaming is a powerful predictor of national performance. In the case of Spain, over a third of students declare having repeated a grade at least once, meaning that schools and teachers wait until the end of the year to do something about struggling students. Other successful countries identify struggling students early and provide the necessary support as soon as possible to avoid students lagging behind and, by avoiding repetition, avoid the negative stigmas associated with failing a grade which prevents students from benefitting academically from grade repetition.

To Alex Jones:

There are indeed high performing countries that are wealthy, small and culturally homogeneous (Iceland, Singapore, Hong Kong-China; may be Finland and Norway could fit that category too) but there are other diverse and "big" countries that are successful performers: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Japan, for example. Estonia is not necessarily rich but has similar performance to Switzerland and Belgium which cater to culturally diverse populations and all three score well above the OECD average. Also, Luxembourg would qualify as a small, wealthy, homogeneous country, but does not show high performance.
This goes to say that high performance in PISA is not easy to predict from cultural homogeneity, wealth and size. Countries do have leverage on how to improve performance beyond constraints that come outside the characteristics of the student population and/or the resources that are available to invest in education.
Paul said…
New Zealand does well in PISA but whilst being small is not homogenous nor wealthy.

We perform well because our teachers are innovative, we have a broad curriculum which allows for teachers to do their work, and schools are run by local communities. Sadly, all this is under threat by the worst government we have had in 20 years and their illogical desire to follow US approaches to teaching developed not in the halls of Education reasearch but rather in the Chicago School of Economics.
Mr C said…
Like Paul says, in NZ we perform well according to the PISA studies. However we are facing some serious issues
a) Forced implementation of "National Standards" with league tables - over 200 of our schools have refused to implement them and are facing the threat of commissioners being sent in.
b) Charter Schools
c) Probable "performance pay"
These are current government policy directions. Other issues are....
d) Feminisation of education - low numbers of males particulaly in Primary and early childhood education.
e) Relatively low pay and status for teachers. (The Govt line of "incompetent teachers failing their students, particularly the underachievers" - doesn't help.
f) Possible moves to increase class sizes - recommended by Treasury to reduce education costs
g) Disengagement by the govt and Minister of Ed from education professionals and education sector groups.
Discouragement and disallusionment amongst a growing number of teacher colleagues.

As a teacher of 35 years service I hold big concerns for the direction our government is taking us - and may well see our great performance in the PISA study deteriate unless these issues are addressed.

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