The efficiency of Italian schools in an international perspective

by Tommaso Agasisti,
Politecnico di Milano School of Management, and TJ Alexander Fellow at OECD

Performance in PISA and (Data Envelope Analysis) efficiency scores

Budget cuts in public services are today common across countries. For schools, as everywhere else, we constantly hear calls for ways to do more with less. Efficiency, it seems, has crept up to the top of the policy agenda. The question is whether the quality of learning is suffering due budget cuts, and if the quality of learning is compromised by fewer resources.

In most countries, educational results have not progressed in line with the increases in resources used by schools. Large scale international assessments, such as PISA, opens the door to new research on efficiency. Using PISA 2012 data, we estimated efficiency for almost 9 000 schools operating in 30 countries. In this context, efficiency is defined in a technical sense: inputs are the number of teachers per student, the number of computers per teacher (measures that provide us with an idea of the amount of human and material resources available to the school) and students’ average socio-economic background (a measure of the environment the school operates and the family background of the students that attend the school), while outputs are measured by the average test scores in mathematics and reading of the students in the school. Using international data, the efficiency at school level is not determined only by national efficiency standards in a particular country, but by schools in all countries.

The results highlight that among the 30 countries being examined, the average efficiency of school stands at 0.73. This means that PISA test scores could be raised by 27% if resources were used at the optimal level of efficiency (those attained by top performing schools for each combination of resources). For Italian schools, the average efficiency score is 0.71, which implies that on average, the PISA scores could be raised by 29%. By way of comparison, the country in which efficiency scores are the highest is Singapore (0.84), followed by two other Asian countries (Korea and Japan), then Poland and Estonia (see Figure above).

The empirical analysis compares Italian schools with a sample of schools in other countries Many Italian schools are comparable with the best schools in the world, while others struggle with underwhelming results (both with regards to achievement and efficiency). One of the most striking findings of this research is the amount of variation in efficiency across schools within each country. In this sense, the “typical, average” Italian school simply does not exist.

The PISA data allows less efficient schools to observe the characteristics of more efficient ones, by studying their organisation and activities, regardless of the country where they operate. Drawing inspiration from these data, each school can adopt the mix of resources, practices and processes that they consider most suitable for improving their operations (in terms of achievement scores and efficiency). In addition, by collecting information at different points in time, schools can monitor improvements and its determinants, eventually adjusting activities and strategies if satisfactory results are not achieved.

An evaluation system of this kind is no substitute for the experience of teachers and principals, rather it can stimulate them, and other stakeholders, into considering the measurable characteristics of their work without renouncing to the more intangible aspects such as cultural and educational values.


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