Are we getting returns on our investments in education?

by Daniel Salinas 
Analyst, Education and Skills Directorate

Countries and economies participating in PISA have invested substantial resources and used a wide variety of strategies during the past ten years to improve the quality of their schools. Have these efforts paid off? Yes and no. As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, schools are better-staffed and better-equipped today than they were a decade ago, and the learning environment in schools has improved as well, particularly when it comes to teacher-student relations. But other aspects measured by PISA in 2003 and 2012, such as the degree to which low- and top-performing students or socio-economically disadvantaged and advantaged students attend the same school (i.e. schools’ academic and social inclusion, respectively), show no clear progress across OECD countries during the period.

OECD countries significantly increased their expenditure in primary and secondary schools during the past decade, and a significant part of this investment has focused on teachers. For example, in 2012, 17% of students across OECD countries attended schools whose principal reported that a lack of qualified mathematics teachers hinders instruction; in 2003, 22% of students attended such schools. In 29 out of 38 countries and economies with comparable data, the quality of educational materials available to schools, such as laboratory equipment, textbooks and computers, also improved during the period. The improvements were particularly striking in Poland, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Uruguay. And the quality of schools’ physical infrastructure, including school buildings and heating and cooling systems, also improved significantly during the past decade, on average across OECD countries.

PISA has shown that without positive learning environments, improving the quality of resources will not yield higher student achievement. The good news is that during the past ten years, the learning environment in schools has also improved in many ways. For example, teacher-student relations were better in 2012 than in 2003 in all the countries and economies that participated in PISA in both years, except Tunisia. Discipline in class also improved, and the incidence of student truancy fell.

But countries and economies still have work to do to make their schools more inclusive. The degree to which students from different socio-economic backgrounds attend the same school did not change between 2003 and 2012, while students with different academic abilities and needs were less likely to attend the same school in 2012 than they were in 2003, on average across OECD countries. Schools became significantly less socially inclusive in Hong Kong-China, Latvia and New Zealand, and significantly more socially inclusive in Italy, Japan, Korea, Switzerland and Turkey.

So two thumbs up and one thumbs down: better educational resources and better learning environments will necessarily have only limited impact if disadvantaged and struggling students don’t have access to them.

PISA in Focus No. 52: How have schools changed over the past decade?
PISA in Focus No. 52: Établissements d’enseignement : quelles évolutions au cours des 10 dernières années ?
Photo credit: Chalk drawing of hopscotch game with dollar signs / @Shutterstock


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