Tuesday, September 02, 2014

More data for better policies

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

As recently as 30 years ago, politicians, leaders and practitioners believed that all economic and social systems could and should be measured, and that managing these systems better would require more data. Except for education systems. Education systems were considered to be so different across countries that international data would never do justice to each system’s specificity. And what happened in the classroom was something believed to be unmeasurable. Yes, maybe you could count the number of students or calculate the years people spend in school; but that was basically it.

Some pioneers had the courage to think differently. Against the tide, and confronting a lot of resistance, they organised international network meetings to discuss the essence of what was happening in education, agree on definitions, develop measurement tools, and exchange and compare data. After all, how could it be that what seemed to be so evident in many other complex systems was impossible in education?

Back to the present. The pioneers have gone; highly professional teams are now bringing their ideas into fruition. We have come to understand that, just as in all other spheres of life, many dimensions of what happens in education can be measured and assessed in an internationally comparative way, without doing injustice to the complexity and sensitivity of education. We now know not only how to count students and the amount of money invested in education, we also know how to translate complex realities into accessible language, thanks to tools such as ISCED. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has taught us how to master the challenge of assessing the knowledge and skills that students acquire in schools. We have been able to relate education to external data on employment, earnings, health outcomes and more intangible outcomes, such as interpersonal trust, to better understand the many social purposes that education serves.

On 9 September the OECD will publish its 2014 edition of Education at a Glance, the world’s most extensive and authoritative data source of international educational statistics and indicators. This year’s edition includes no less than 30 different indicators and over 100 000 pieces of data. Policy makers, education leaders, practitioners and a wide variety of stakeholders will try to find out how their system is doing compared to that of other countries. How educated have our societies become? Have the investments in our schools decreased as a consequence of the economic crisis? How large is the earnings premium from which tertiary graduates benefit over their lifetime? Do pupils in private schools perform better than in public schools? Is social mobility a reality or just an aspiration? How well do we pay our teachers? How many students now travel over the globe to study elsewhere? These questions emerge not just out of curiosity. The data and the evidence increasingly serve to underpin and improve policies. A system as complex as education cannot be managed and steered without reliable and comparable data. Better and more data result in better policies.

This year’s edition is particularly rich because the OECD has been able to benefit from three main sources of survey data: the PISA 2012 database on learning outcomes of 15-year-olds, the data from the Survey of Adult Skills (a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC), and data on teachers from the 2013 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). Combined with the data collected from administrative sources, we now have the largest database in education ever brought together in human history.

Does this mean that the mystery of the educational encounter between teacher and learner has been sacrificed on the altar of numbers? No, just as the sophisticated data-monitoring systems in the health sector have not destroyed the genius of the medical act. In both cases the data have helped to create better conditions for the magic to happen.

Launch events:
Live streaming of launch event in Brussels with Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills, and Xavier Prats Monné, European Commission Deputy Director-General for Education and Culture
OECD Education and Skills webinar presenting Education at a Glance: 2014 OECD Indicators (registration required. Password: OECDEDU)
Follow #OECDEAG on Twitter:  @OECD_Edu @OECDLive @EAG_Indicators
See full listing of media events
OECD Education at a Glance
Education GPS - the OECD source for internationally comparable data on education policies and practices
Photo credit: © OECD

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