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Ministers, Union leaders and teacher leaders from 23 of the 25 highest performing and most rapidly improving education systems on PISA followed an invitation from U.S. Education Secretary Duncan, the OECD and Education International to discuss how to prepare teachers and develop school leaders for the 21st century. It was an unprecedented turnout of those in education who can make change happen. They met because they realise the urgency of raising the status of the education profession, because they know that governments and the profession are in this together, and no doubt also because they were convened by a Secretary who has demonstrated that bold reform can be successfully implemented even in the most challenging times.

It was amazing to see how much education, traditionally inward-looking, siloed and at times provincial, has become an international arena, with success no longer measured by national standards alone but by what the best performing education systems show can be achieved. Secretary Duncan may have surprised delegates when he explained how much of his reform agenda builds on the experience of the most successful educational systems and the outcomes from last year’s Summit. But no less so did Zhang Minxuan, mastermind of Shanghai’s school reform that helped to propel the province to the highest performing education systems on the most recent PISA assessment, when he recounted how he and his colleagues had toured the world in the 1990s to find out how countries as different as the United States and Switzerland were successfully addressing the policy challenges his province had faced at that time, not to copy what they were doing but to learn from them and put together a design for Shanghai that would be superior to anything that they had seen anywhere. Though one can always question whether policies that are successful in some place will succeed in another place - and surely no country can simply adopt another nation’s system or policies – comparative data and analysis seem to rapidly expand the scope for learning from the successes and failures of education policies and practices around the world.

Where important things are happening in schools there are people that makes these things happen. A consistent thread through the discussions was the central role that leadership plays in high performing education systems. This was all about supporting, evaluating and developing teacher quality; about vision for results, equity and accountability and a culture of commitment rather than compliance; and about aligning pedagogical goals with strategic resource management.

I also took away from the discussions how important it is to take a system-wide perspective and to connect school leaders so that their work is coherently aligned with the larger goals of the systems. Ministers and Union leaders stressed the need to distribute leadership effectively so that school leaders can take on this larger system-level role. As the Swedish Minister put it, if there are too few people involved in leadership, things will simply not change because there are so few people promoting change and so many against it. Or, in the words of the Slovenian Minister, in the age of Twitter, your effectiveness as a leader depends so much less on your administrative powers than on your capacity to attract followers. But it became equally clear that there can be a tension between leaderships and leaders; between structures and coherence, on the one hand, and visionary and entrepreneurial individuals, on the other. And there can be a tension between the need to pinpoint responsibilities in schools and avoiding autocratic school leadership that undermines the profession and precludes the teaching of 21st century skills.

While everyone seemed to agree on what leadership in the 21st century needs to look like, there was much debate as to how best to develop effective leaders. Some countries explained how they put the premium on professionalised recruitment, seeking to attract high-quality candidates and selecting carefully for candidates with strong instructional knowledge, a track record of improved learning outcomes, and leadership potential. Others underlined the central role of high quality training for what matters most, careful induction and ongoing development and appraisal in order to enable school leaders to set strategic direction for their schools and to remain responsive to local needs, to enhance their role in teacher professional development, and to encourage them to promote teamwork among teachers.

The success reported by high-performing countries as different as Canada, Finland or Singapore in leveraging the knowledge and skills of talented leaders for system-wide improvement and developing effective leaders at scale seemed truly remarkable. These countries don't wait until teachers have reached the level of seniority to apply for leadership positions but are assessing young teachers continuously for their leadership potential and give them ample opportunity to develop their leadership capacity. They put in place far-sighted succession planning and show that leaders are not just born but can be developed and supported at scale with policy levers that can be acted upon. It was widely agreed that success will much depend on school leaders owning their professional practice or, as the Dutch Minister put it, Governments will need to listen to the voices of principals and teachers to articulate what the standards of their professional practice should be.

The Summit then turned to how to prepare and enable teachers to deliver the skills that students will need to succeed in the 21st century skills. Everyone realises that the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test are now also the skills that are easiest to automate, digitise and outsource. Of ever-growing importance, but so much harder to develop, are ways of thinking - creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning; ways of working – including communication and collaboration; and tools for working – including information and communications technologies. The Nordic countries, in particular, also highlighted the importance of skills around citizenship, life and career and personal and social responsibility for success in modern democracies.

That led Ministers and Union leaders to debate the kind of learning environments that would be conducive to the development of such skills. It became clear that 21st century learning environments must make learning central and encourage student engagement, ensure that learning is social and collaborative, be relevant and highly attuned to students’ motivations, be acutely sensitive to individual differences and provide formative feedback, promote connections across activities and subjects both in and out of school, and perhaps most importantly, be demanding of every student without overloading them. Hong Kong brought up the interesting question of where the spiral ends of equipping students for the 21st century, preparing teachers to teach those students, and creating the teacher training institutions that can develop those teachers. Nobody was able to provide an answer but the list of demands participants placed on teachers in the 21st century seemed very long: They need to be well-versed in the subjects they teach and that includes both content-specific strategies and teaching methods. They need a deep understanding for how learning occurs and master a broad range of learning strategies. They need to work in highly collaborative ways with other teachers and professionals in networks of professional communities. They need opportunities to reflect on their practices in order to learn from their experience. And they need to master the technology skills required both optimize the use of digital resources in their teaching and to use information-management systems to track student learning.

While countries such as Singapore or Finland were acknowledged as being somewhat further advanced than others in the pursuit of these goals, every country seems to struggle with the widening gap between what modern societies demand and what today’s school systems deliver. One thing became clear, however: Many education systems are giving teachers mixed messages about the skills they know are needed, on the one hand, and what they make visible and thus value in the form of examinations and assessments, on the other. Unions brought this up and underlined the urgency for examinations and assessments to re-assess trade-offs between validity gains and efficiency gains. Governments will need to deliver on this if they are serious about walking the talk around 21st century skills.

Ministers and Union leaders struggled equally hard with the third theme of the Summit: how to improve the match between teacher demand and supply. Even if some Ministers said they had plenty of teachers, virtually all seemed to have difficulties with attracting the most talented teachers to the most challenging classroom to ensure that every student benefits from high quality teaching. In a number of countries the challenge is compounded with ageing teacher populations, frequently leading to teacher overload with instruction and administrative work and, at the system level, to lowered requirements for entry and teaching outside subjects. In some countries there was talk of a downward spiral - from lowered standards for entry, leading to lowered confidence in the profession, resulting, in turn, in more prescriptive teaching and thus less personalisation in learning experiences - that risked to drive the most talented teachers out of the profession, thus further aggravating the mismatch between teacher demand and supply.

Not surprisingly, this was also the area where governments and unions seemed widest apart. Union leaders were right in emphasising that, in many countries, teacher pay is not up to the pay in other professions requiring similar qualifications. As the Finnish Union leader put it, if you pay peanuts you will get monkeys. But this discussion overlooked that many of the countries that are paying their teachers well are simply making more effective spending choices between teacher pay and professional development, on the one hand, and instruction time and class sizes, on the other, often ending up spending far less overall than countries that have tied up much of their spending in lowered class sizes, which Unions continue to push for too. It has been easy to achieve more with more, but in these times of economic difficulties, governments and unions will need to take a hard look at how to achieve more with less.

Ministers and Union leaders agreed, however, that making teaching a well respected profession and a more attractive career choice both intellectually and financially, investing in teacher development, and competitive employment conditions were all essential to get teacher demand and supply in better balance. It was striking to see how high-performing education systems have generally transformed the work organization in their schools by replacing administrative forms of management with professional norms that provide the status, pay, professional autonomy and accountability, and the high-quality training, responsibility and collaborative work that go with professional work. These countries also tend to provide effective systems of social dialogue, and appealing forms of employment that balance flexibility with job security, and grant sufficient authority for schools to manage and deploy their human resources. Not least, they complement policies and practices to expand the pool of talented teachers with targeted responses and incentives for particular types of teacher shortages in ways that value and formally recognize work in tougher conditions.

Delegates also pointed out that matching teacher demand and supply critically relies on an environment that facilitates success and that encourages effective teachers to continue in teaching. Teacher leaders, in particular, emphasised that they place a premium on self-efficacy, wanting to be in a context and instructional environment in which they are successful, on genuine career perspectives, on the quality of their relations with students and colleagues, on feeling supported by their school leaders, and on adequate working conditions.

Last but not least, it became clear that education needs to become a social project. Partnerships and coalitions are necessary and possible to strengthen and build the profession. Such coalitions require trust and respect and demand from all actors that they move beyond their comfort zone. As several speakers noted, seeking short-term political gains by shaming teachers will not strengthen the profession but tear it apart.

As complex as the challenges are, and as much as one could be tempted to dwell on their complexity and despair, it was encouraging to see how Ministers and Union leaders took away important lessons for their own country in the concluding session of the Summit. For example, Belgium intends to conclude a pact with the providers of education and the trade unions on the teacher career. China seeks to vigorously improve the pre-service education for teachers and expand early childhood education for all children. Denmark wants to make elevating the status of the teaching profession a top national priority and underlines that educational pathways from age 0 to 18 need to strike a careful balance between social and subject-matter skills. Estonia aspires to a comprehensive reform of pre-service, in-service and co-operative professional development, following the model of the most advanced education systems. Finland seeks to develop new collaborative models for school development and teacher education development, a better alignment between curricula goals and educational assessment, and improved pedagogical use of social medial. Germany will bring the German Ministers and union leaders together to move the dialogue among the social partners beyond rhetoric. Hungary seeks to better align and reinforce the context, process, feedback and relationships among key players, aiming for genuine collaboration among stakeholders. Japan will further advance its holistic reform of preparation, recruitment and professional development. Korea wants to strengthen collaboration between school leadership and local communities. The Netherlands will introduce peer reviews for school leaders and teachers as the primary instrument for quality assurance. New Zealand will further develop a systemic approach to making successful practice common practice. Norway intends to work on career paths for teachers that can be combined with distributed and collaborative leadership and focus on how to implement national reforms all the way into the classroom. Poland will place the premium on preparing teachers for 21st century skills. Singapore seeks to further advance its whole system approach to education reform to achieve impact and sustainability. Sweden wants to do more to attract top students into the teaching profession and to create incentives to reward high performing teachers throughout their careers. Switzerland will seek new ways to create careers for teachers and to integrate other professionals into teaching. The United Kingdom seeks to promote an atmosphere and the conditions for teachers to be actively trusted and respected. The United States seeks to build a coherent and systemic process for engaging all actors in comprehensive large scale change, challenging every assumption, big or small. Of course, none of these pronouncements imply a formal commitment on the part of governments or unions, but they underline the intention of Ministers and Union leaders to move the education agenda forward. The 2013 Summit will tell how fast these visions turn into reality.


Updated version 12 November 2011

I had always been interested in Asia’s success story of Singapore, that transformed itself from a developing country to a modern industrial economy in one generation. This year I had the opportunity of a visiting professorship at Singapore’s National Institute of Education to learn more about this country. If I had to summarise what I learned in one sentence, this is a story about political coherence and leadership as well as alignment between policy and practice; about setting ambitious standards in everything you do; about focusing on building teacher and leadership capacity to deliver vision and strategy at the school level; and about a culture of continuous improvement and future orientation that benchmarks educational practices against the best in the world.

At the institutional level, both policy coherence and fidelity of implementation are brought about by a strategic relationship between the Ministry of Education, the NIE and the schools. That's not just words. The reports I received from policy makers, researchers and teachers were entirely consistent, even where they represented different perspectives. NIE’s dynamic director Lee Sing Kong meets the Minister on a weekly basis. NIE professors are regularly involved in ministry discussions and decisions, so it is easy for NIE’s work to be aligned with ministry policies, and school principals learn about major reform proposals directly from the Minister, rather than through the media. Teacher education programmes are designed with the teacher in mind, rather than to suit the interests of academic departments. Teachers typically go into the field with a first degree, the Master’s programme serves to frame the practical experience gained in schools within a coherent theoretical underpinning later in mid-career – and I met plenty of teachers who had taken that up and continue their education while in the profession. In recognising the need for teachers to keep up with the rapid changes occurring in the world and to be able to constantly improve their practice, every teacher is entitled to 100 hours of professional development per year. Teacher networks and professional learning communities encourage peer-to-peer learning and the Academy of Singapore Teachers was opened in September 2010 to further encourage teachers to continuously share best practices.

The usual complaint that teacher education does not provide sufficient opportunity for recruits to experience real students in real classrooms in their initial education isn’t unknown in Singapore. It is simply difficult, disruptive and expensive to get an annual cohort of 2000 teacher recruits into classrooms. So what to do? Do like Stanford and establish the world’s premier teacher education institution with clinical experience for a hundred students per year and let the rest of the country sink? Singapore is not the U.S. where teacher policy is a function of myriad decisions made by local authorities who often have no idea how their decisions are actually affecting the quality of the teaching profession. So Singapore has gone the other way round – on top of school practicum attachments of between 10 to 22 weeks, NIE is currently bringing classrooms digitally into pre-service education, with technology enabling real-time access to a selection of the country’s classrooms, in ways that don't distract schools from their core business and at the same provide student-teachers with insights into classroom experience in many schools, rather than have a few idiosyncratic experiences only. NIE also carries out an amazing range of classroom-oriented research to help teachers personalise learning experiences, deal with increasing diversity in their classrooms and differences in learning styles, and keep up with innovations in curricula, pedagogy and digital resources.

It is also striking to see how teaching talent is identified and nurtured rather than being left to chance. Like all government employees and many other professions in Singapore, the teachers’ performance is appraised annually by a board and against 13 different competencies. These are not just about academic performance, but include teachers’ contribution to the academic and character development of the students in their charge, their collaboration with parents and community groups, and their contribution to their colleagues and the school as a whole. It was intriguing to see how teachers didn't seem to view this as a top-down accountability system but as an instrument for improvement and career development. Teachers who do outstanding work receive a bonus from the school’s bonus pool.  After three years of teaching, teachers are assessed annually to see which of three career paths would best suit them – master teacher, specialist in curriculum or research or school leader. Importantly, the individual appraisal system sits within the context of great attention to the school’s overall plan for educational excellence.

PISA data show that schools in Singapore have comparatively limited leeway in making hiring decisions. But I learned that the principal of the school to which teacher-students are attached will sit on the recruitment panel and weigh in on decisions about the recruitment of the people they could end up with, well aware that wrong recruitment decisions can result in 40 years of poor teaching. So it’s not all just about your school, but about the success of the system.

I could see how all of this plays out in practice in Qifa Primary School. It was the experience you would expect in Singapore, a charismatic school leader, an engaged team of teachers with a critical and collaborative mindset, and disciplined and yet cheerful students. But what impressed me most was a visit to one of Singapore’s three Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) which cater for the bottom quarter of school performers. I had long wanted to see how the country deals with these students. I was received in the school’s restaurant which, entirely managed and run by students, almost looks like an upgraded Lau Pa Sat with airconditioning, serving dishes from a dozen countries and cultures, a symbol of a country that doesn't see culture as an obstacle but seeks to capitalize on its diversity.

I visited a classroom where a visiting Australian chef was captivating a group of students with an interactive presentation on the latest research on preparing meat, in a first-class learning environment equipped with the up-to-date technology. The facilities and amenities of the ITE were easily comparable to those of modern universities anywhere else. This is a country that invests the same amount of public money into every vocational student as the high school student going to its most prestigious university, that understands that the physical learning environment can shape the image of an institution and that prioritizes the quality of teaching over the size of classes. And the ministry provides the ITE’s with full budgetary autonomy over a ten-year budget envelope to facilitate long-term strategic planning and investment.

Clearly, Singapore seeks to break the East Asian mould where academic achievement is revered as the only route to success, recognising that students learn differently and differently at different stages in their lives. Once seen as a last resort, Singapore’s ITE College West is now a place of choice for students, with 90% of graduates finding jobs in their chosen field, up from 60% decades ago. The ITE also sees a sizeable number of students who make it from the ITE to the polytechnic to the university and to anywhere in life. Principal Yek Tiew Ming explained how the ITE carefully follows its graduates for a decade to learn from their experience and success, and regularly brings successful alumni back to show its current students that the sky is the limit to achievement. The ITE’s also provide good examples for building synergies between public provision and the business sector. Each technical field in the ITE’s is advised by industries in that sector to keep it current with changing demands and new technologies. New programmes can be built for multinational companies looking to locate in Singapore.

All this has changed the way in which political leaders and educators view those students, no longer considering them as failures but as experiential learners. And I was impressed by the students of the ITE as much as by its principal and teachers.

I had taken the outgoing flight with a Western airline and the returning flight to Paris with Singapore Airlines; you fly with the same plane with the same technology, you eat similar food but you experience how much the sense of responsibility, dedication and diligence of the people in charge can make a difference to your experience as a customer.

There are important lessons the world can learn from Singapore. To those who believe that systemic change in education is not possible, Singapore has shown several times over how this can be achieved. To become and remain high-performing, countries need a policy infrastructure that drives performance and builds the capacity for educators to deliver it in schools. Singapore has developed both. Where Singapore is today is the result of several decades of judicious policy and effective implementation. On the spectrum of national reform models, Singapore’s is both comprehensive – the goal has been to move the whole system – and public policy-driven.

I was struck most by the following features.

Meritocracy. I heard not just from policy makers or educators but also from students of all ethnic backgrounds and all ranges of ability that education is the route to advancement and that hard work and effort eventually pays off. The government has put in place a wide range of educational and social policies to advance this goal, with early intervention and multiple pathways to education and career. The success of the government’s economic and educational policies has brought about immense social mobility that has created a shared sense of national mission and made cultural support for education a near-universal value.

Vision, leadership and competency. Leaders with a bold long-term vision of the role of education in a society and economy are essential for creating educational excellence. I was consistently impressed with the people I met at both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Manpower. These Ministries are staffed by knowledgeable, pragmatic individuals, trained at some of the best universities in the world. They function in a culture of continuous improvement, constantly assessing what is and isn’t working using both data and practitioner experience from around the world. I was speaking with Minister Heng about our Skills Strategy only to realise that he had already studied most of my slides. They also respect and are respected by professionals in the NIE as in the schools. The close collaboration between policy, research and practice provides a guiding coalition that keeps the vision moving forward and dynamic, expecting education to change as conditions change rather than being mired in the past.

Coherence. In Singapore, whenever a policy is developed or changed, there seems enormous attention to the details of implementation – from the Ministry of Education, to the National Institute of Education, cluster superintendents, principals and teachers. The result is a remarkable fidelity of implementation which you see in the consistency of the reports from different stakeholders. 

Clear goals, rigorous standards and high-stakes gateways. The academic standards set by Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examination and O and A-levels are as high as anywhere in the world, and that is also what you see from their results in PISA. Students, teachers and principals all work very hard towards important gateways. Rigour, coherence and focus are the watchwords. Serious attention to curriculum development has produced strong programmes in maths, science, technical education and languages and ensured that teachers are well-trained to teach them. Having been very successful as a knowledge transmission education system, Singapore is now working on curriculum, pedagogy and assessments that will lead to a greater focus on high-level, complex skills.

High-quality teachers and principals. The system rests on active recruitment of talent, accompanied by coherent training and serious and continuing support that promote teacher growth, recognition, opportunity and well-being. And Singapore looks ahead, realising that as the economy continues to grow and change it will become harder to recruit the kind of top-level people into teaching that are needed to support 21st century learning.

Intelligent accountability. Singapore runs on performance management. To maintain the performance of teachers and principals, serious attention is paid to setting annual goals, to garnering the needed support to meet them and to assessing whether they have been met. Data on student performance are included, but so too are a range of other measures, such as contribution to school and community, and judgements by a number of senior practitioners. Reward and recognition systems include honours and salary bonuses. Individual appraisals take place within the context of school excellence plans. While no country believes it has got accountability exactly right, Singapore’s system uses a wide range of indicators and involves a wide range of professionals in making judgements about the performance of adults in the system. 

So is there nothing that Singapore can learn from the world? Actually there are a number a points.

You can mandate good performance, but you need to unleash greatness. Finland provides an example for how you can shift the focus from a regulating towards an enabling policy environment. Perhaps it was no surprise then that when I met State Minister Wong for lunch, he had just returned from a visit to Finland. 

Singapore’s educators realize that the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitize, automate and outsource; and that value is less and less created vertically through command and control and increasingly so horizontally by whom you connect and work with. There is much talk about educational success being no longer about reproducing content knowledge, and efforts initiated to develop imaginative skills to connect the dots and to anticipate where the next invention will come from; about ways of working, including communication and collaboration; and about the tools for working, including the capacity to recognize and exploit the potential of new technologies. And more than that, the centre of the current discussion is now on ethics, values and the capacity of students to live in a multi-faceted world as active and engaged citizens. But Singapore’s educators, like educators elsewhere, struggle with finding appropriate answers to what students should learn, the ways in which they can learn these broader competences and how teaching and schooling needs to change to achieve this.

Despite building many bridges and ladders across the system, PISA shows how social background still creates important barriers for student success. Like others, Singapore finds that the emphasis on meritocracy alone provides no guarantee for equity, and that it takes effective systems of support to moderate the impact of social background on student and school outcomes and to identify and foster the extraordinary talents of ordinary students. Educators are inspired by the life-changing opportunities created at the Northlight School. There is also considerable interest in Shanghai’s success with attracting the most effective school principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms as well as in Ontario’s approach to creating awareness of and addressing social disadvantage.

While Singapore does so well in allocating public resources to maximize value for money, parents are spending significant resources on private tutoring. When measured in PISA metrics, private tutoring actually adds very little in value to the high quality education in Singaporean schools but it does, apart from the money, take up a disproportionate amount of student learning time. Singapore would make much better use of the country’s economic and human resources by accepting rather than ignoring the demand for such more personalized learning and perhaps building it into the regular school days of public schools, as countries like Denmark or Finland have successfully done.

So, all in all, while there is a lot the world can learn from Singapore, there remain lessons too which Singapore can continue to learn from the world. In short, there seems always much to gain from education systems collaborating to address tomorrow’s challenges to their strengths today.


We have moved

Posted by 43443 Sep 9, 2011

OECD’s educationtoday blog on global perspectives on education has moved to:


We will continue to blog about hot topics in education around the globe and at OECD, bringing you an insider look at new findings in international student performance, skills, early childhood education, education innovation and more. Guest bloggers from within the OECD (including experts in the field) and from around the world (education ministers and education movers and shakers).


We hope you will bookmark and join us at

It is a virtuous cycle if there ever was one: when students enjoy reading, they tend to read better, which makes reading easier and more enjoyable, so they read more, and so on. Better readers not only perform well in school, they grow up to become adults who use their reading skills to make sense of the world around them and continue learning throughout their lives.


But for many students around the world, that cycle appears to have broken. Even though better reading performance in PISA is more associated with reading for pleasure every day than with how many hours a student spends reading, the latest issue of PISA in Focus reports that, in 2009, only around two-thirds of students in OECD countries said that they read for pleasure daily; and in most OECD countries, the proportion of students who said they read for enjoyment was smaller in 2009 than it was in 2000.


Reading for pleasure is also associated with girls – there’s a 20 percentage-point gender gap among 15-year-olds who read for enjoyment – and with socio-economic advantage – on average across OECD countries, 72% of advantaged students read for pleasure while only 56% of disadvantaged students do. And in as many as ten OECD countries, that latter gap is more than 20 percentage points wide.


It’s troubling enough that in 2009 fewer boys and girls reported that they read for pleasure than their counterparts did in 2000; but PISA results also show that the decline is steeper among boys in nearly all countries.


There’s much more at stake, here, than performance on PISA reading tests. To have the habit of reading, which is much easier to develop when one actually enjoys reading, is to have the key to the store of knowledge acquired through the millennia, the tools to interpret and apply that knowledge, and the foundation on which to build a lifetime of learning. Parents and educators can instil and feed this invaluable habit by having books available at home, reading to and in front of their children, and suggesting reading material that students find interesting and relevant. The late American psychologist B. F. Skinner had a point: “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”

The OECD review of Australia’s system of evaluation and assessment gains extensive press coverage and provides wider relevance for the education world


The OECD’s recent review of Australia’s system of evaluation and assessment has identified major strengths in what Australia has already been doing while providing a road map for improvements moving forward. But even if you’re not an Aussie, the review contains valuable lessons about evaluation and assessment frameworks that go beyond the country-specific context. The report provides comprehensive recommendations on how to balance national requirements with local needs, align teaching standards to career advancement, and use student assessment data to make meaningful improvements to schools.


On a national level, Australia is doing well overall. The review praises the introduction of national teaching standards, performance goals, and the system’s strong focus on students’ results. It also credits the school system with a commitment to transparency.

Nevertheless, striking the right balance between national policies and meeting local needs continues to be a challenge. Furthermore, the report cited some rooms for improvement, including the alignment of teaching standards with competency-based career advancement. 

Almost as interesting as the review itself are the reactions from the press and policymakers. Was the review a strong validation of the government’s reforms or a critique of the way teachers are paid and tests are used? The answer seems to be: a little bit of both, with spin on each side. With press reports framing the story as both positive “International Report Validates Reforms” and slightly negative, “Pay teachers on merit, OECD tells Gillard government” policymakers are forced to answer the all important question: now what?


School Education Minister Peter Garrett said the report was “a big tick of approval” and emphasized that the government was already implementing many of the recommendations from the review as part of the new reforms. He also highlighted the fact that the OECD believed introducing teacher standards was a “major development.”


Read more:


The OECD Review of Evaluation and Assessment in Australia report, main conclusions and two-page summary are available on the “Country Reviews” page of the project’s website.


The press release by the Australian Department of Education (DEEWR) can be found here.


More articles on the report from education and local Australian news outlets:

  • The Australian: “Pay teachers on merit, OECD tells Gillard government”
  • Education Review: “International report validates reforms: Garrett”
  • ninemsn “Pay Teachers for Skills: OECD”
  • PS News: School Reforms Pass OECD Test”
  • ABC News:  OECD concerns on education revolution

Education XX.0

Posted by 498371 Aug 17, 2011

PISA surveys are crafted to answer the question: Are students well prepared to meet the challenges of the future? The OECD is not alone in asking. In a provocative opinion piece published recently in The New York Times, Virginia Heffernan cites an astonishing statistic: fully 65% of today’s grade-school students may wind up doing work that hasn’t even been invented yet. For her, the answer to the question is an unequivocal “no”.


Heffernan’s article is largely based on the findings and analysis presented in a new book, Now You See It, by Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. While the book is ostensibly about the brain science of attention, it also, as Heffernan writes, “challenges nearly every assumption about American education”.


Take that old warhorse of secondary and university-level education – the research paper. Davidson, a professor at Duke University, laments the quality of some of the papers her students submit. But, she asks, “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?” (As a former writer of research papers and current editor, who had a prose-saving stint as a journalist in between, I would go out on a limb – a very solid one, I think – to say that the “what if” that opens Davidson’s sentence, and the question mark that punctuates it, could safely be deleted…)


Davidson compares her students’ papers to blogs they have posted and concludes: “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”


So how can education be redesigned to absorb – and exploit – these new realities? Davidson offers a few suggestions: de-emphasise solitary work and focus, instead, on fostering collaboration; devise new ways of measuring students’ progress more attuned to the times in which they’re living; and build on students’ digital literacy, including by encouraging students to contribute to web-based projects.


Davidson’s observations reinforce one of the findings that emerged from PISA’s ground-breaking survey of digital literacy in 2009: Students learn more about navigating their way around the Internet at home than they do at school. They develop these skills naturally, using home computers or hand-held devices, in their unstructured exploration of the web. As Heffernan writes, “We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills [students are] developing on their own.”


We welcome your thoughts…



Posted by 64189 Aug 8, 2011





















It seems that one way to see the fabric and true face of a society is to learn how it responds to a crisis. I witnessed how nature can destroy anything mankind builds within seconds, but also how human strength of mind, local initiative, and the joint forces of people can overcome seemingly unsurmountable challenges and rebuild society.


For hours we drove along the coastline through endless areas where entire villages had been swept away, leaving nothing behind but the foundations of houses. In some areas, one ruin after the other was marked with circles and red crosses, signalling where people had lost not just their shelter but also their loved ones.


While the establishment of temporary housing and the public infrastructure is proceeding at an impressive speed, re-establishing human capacity proves to be the far greater challenge. That was most clearly visible in Otsuchi Town, where the tsunami had killed the Mayor and destroyed much of the public administration and its corporate memory: This town was far behind others in its reconstruction efforts. Looking at it the other way round, this was illustration of how important local initiative and capacity is in rebuilding the area. I spend almost an hour with the superintendent of Yamada who was a great example of local leadership, and when I listened to him, with tears in his eyes but also full of determination to help create a new Japan, Tokyo seemed far, very far, away. He stood in sharp contrast to the Western stereotype of Japanese bureaucrats waiting for instructions from above.


The school principals of Funakoshi and Ohtsuchi Elementary School running the temporary Rikuchu-Sanriku Youth House were other illustrations of the immense dynamism and creativity that Japan can have, if it chooses to unleash it. In fact, just before I met them I had visited the remnants of the old Funakoshi elementary School, a school that looked like you imagine a school anywhere in the world, there were long dark corridors providing each class with its own classroom, and one floor up there was the teachers’ room. But the Rikucho-Sanriku temporary school was different, the Gymnasium hosted three classes in a grand open learning space and the teachers’ rooms of two original schools faces the “classrooms”. Together, students and teachers found creative solutions to ease the difficult conditions, fostering mutual respect and responsibility at the same time.  As the head-teacher explained, when one class had a music lesson, the others would go outside for sports. The teachers could not preserve much from the old school library, but the community-based support groups had chipped in to donate books and whatever else was needed, and there seemed nothing that you cannot build from cardboard. Children from all over Japan and the world had connected with this school and offered their sympathy, solidarity and support, the walls were not large enough to hold all the postcards, letters and toys they had sent. In some ways, the tsunami had transformed a school of the past into a learning environment of the future.


The most moving reports were those from teachers. Even in normal times, Japan is a country where there seems no boundary between the public and private life of teachers, where teachers feel a deep commitment not just to the cognitive development of their students, but also to their students’ social and emotional at school and at home. The crisis has amplified this, with teachers taking on an incredible amount of additional responsibility with little material and psychological support.

There was, first of all, the immediate impact of the tsunami where I heard about many teachers who had risked their lives to save those of their students. One high school teacher recounted how he is unable to forget the moment when he had reached out to save a child whom the violent floods were carrying into the open sea, but failed to seize the hand by just a few centimetres. Another teacher had rescued all the children in the school after the initial earthquake hit and brought them to high ground. When the parents of one of the children arrived and demanded to take her home, the teacher was not convinced that it was the right act, but didn’t deny the request. The child and her family died on their way down to the city when the tsunami followed.


And in many ways this just marks the beginning for teachers. I learned that it was often only when students return from temporary shelter to their original environment that they and their families were realising the full impact of the tsunami. For some it is their lost family members, relatives or neighbours. For others it is the loss of their livelihoods, as a large share of the jobs have disappeared, and may have disappeared forever as the economy restructures and new and different jobs will be needed requiring new and different skillsets and thus placing additional demands on people for adjustment. There is no doubt that these scars of children and their families will shape the work and life of teachers until long after the towns and cities have been rebuilt. Japan can be proud of its teachers who are taking on this challenge, who don’t just feel as educators but as nation builders, but they will need strong and sustained support.


Then there are the unions. As an employee of a government organisation the first thought I tend to have about unions is that these are the people who oppose educational reforms. But I was deeply impressed by the more than 12,000 JTUC staff members who have volunteered in the tsunami area. And I have met few people who share such a deep concern and commitment for the future of the education and social welfare of Japan’s children than JTU’s vice president and her colleagues in Iwate prefecture.


Acknowledging that we don’t have the firemen, doctors and engineers that Japan needs in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, I was struck by the similarity in the answers I received when I asked what the OECD can do to help. Virtually everyone said that they knew how to rebuild the public infrastructure, that they will work hard to support their schools and teachers, but that they need the OECD to share the world’s expertise in building an education system that fills Japan’s curricular goal of “zest for living” with life – to which the tsunami has given an entirely new meaning. To build an education system that shifts from reproducing educational content for school towards strengthening competencies for life; from education to serve the nation state towards education for citizenship in the local community, the Japanese society and the global community; from education for competition in exam hell towards strengthening social skills and social cohesion; and from education for situational values – I will do anything the situation allows me to do – to sustainable values.

Community leaders and educators were also keen to share the experience which they had gained in the aftermath of the tsunami to help the world avoid some of the mistakes which they had made and to reduce the impact of future natural disasters.


And so many conversations ended with, please, don’t forget us.


Debates on the benefits and disadvantages of private schooling are as perennial as daisies – and the arguments tendered to justify each viewpoint are just about as common: a more innovative educational environment on the one side; social segregation on the other.


Results from PISA offer a more nuanced perspective. Most of the reasons parents cite for sending their children to private schools (which PISA defines as schools that are locally managed, regardless of how they are funded) are true: in general, privately run schools enjoy a more advantaged student population, more material resources, fewer teacher shortages and better disciplinary climates than public schools; and students who attend private schools usually benefit from the experience – and tend to achieve higher scores in PISA. But an analysis of PISA results, highlighted in the latest issue of PISA in Focus, also shows that students from similar socio-economic backgrounds who attend public schools, particularly public schools that have a high degree of autonomy over the curriculum they offer and how their funding is spent, do just as well in PISA as students in privately run schools.


Yet the very presence of private schools in a school system could help to improve the quality of education in public schools. Since private schools have to compete among themselves to attract the best students, they have to be both efficient and innovative in how they use the resources available to them to offer inspiring courses taught by the best teachers. To remain competitive in such a school system, public schools may then have to re-consider their own approaches to education if they want to retain the best-performing students and recruit better teachers.


However, such a spill-over effect isn’t apparent in PISA results. School systems with large numbers of private schools do not necessarily score any better in PISA than those with fewer private schools. This is because the proportion of advantaged students, who generally perform well in PISA no matter what kind of school they attend, is a constant in a given school system, and because public as well as private schools can be granted high levels of autonomy over curriculum design and resource allocation.


Count on PISA to join the debate with some revealing and provocative data. After all, PISA is not your garden-variety survey.

Myself, along with many educators and education policymakers, were pleased to receive news that Korea had topped the OECD’s Digital Reading Assessment (DRA).  We were even more encouraged by the results showing a significant percentage of students proficient at the highest scale of digital reading, and the small proportion of low-performing students.

I am confident that the results reflect our policy efforts which are aimed to enhance the digital infrastructure of schools and apply it in real life and teaching.  At the same time, it led me to think about how we should teach and nurture the talents and dreams of our children who apparently are more familiar with and ready to learn through the digital environment than we have been aware of.

It is fortunate that this year, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has been preparing the “Promotion Strategy for Smart Education” to respond to the changing environment, by focusing on customized learning and teaching.  Coincidentally, this plan has been made known to the world simultaneously with the announcement of the DRA results.  Smart Education is a customized learning system that enhances the capacity of learners in the 21st century, by moving away from uniform to individualized education, from standardized to diversified knowledge, and from admission-oriented to creativity-based learning.  Smart Education will become a momentum for the innovation of the overall education system, including its environment, contents, teaching method, and evaluation.

The Korean government is implementing Smart Education by establishing wireless networks in all schools to allow students to learn whenever and wherever as well as an education information system that can run in PCs, laptops, smart tabs, tablet PCs, and smart TVs.  The government will also support a nationwide open content market containing a variety of learning materials so that users may have access to high-quality educational information at a low cost.

Smart Education will change how we perceive textbooks.  The transfer from the traditional paper textbooks to digital textbooks will allow students to leave behind their heavy backpacks and explore the world beyond the classroom.  Having proven the potential through trial runs since 2007, the Korean government will continue its development to distribute digital textbooks to elementary schools from 2014 and ultimately to middle, and high schools by 2015.  The development standard and utility platform will be available to the private sector, thereby promoting the participation of companies and the blooming of smart education industries.

Digital textbooks – rich in content – are directly linked to the promotion of online classes.   Online classes not only help students to make up for absences, but also facilitate studies of those who may be taking leave due to disabilities or health related issues.  Moreover, online classes will secure students’ rights to select their learning subjects, even for students in rural areas who were previously deprived of this right due to lack of subject teachers.


The potential of our children is limitless. Smart Education is the best choice for Korea’s education to fulfill the hopes and dreams of all students in the 21st century.

Mr. Ju-Ho Lee, Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Korea


Download: PISA 2009 Results: Students Online



Posted by 498371 Jul 20, 2011

A test the whole world can take…


It’s a breathtaking concept – but for the OECD it’s a very real way of finding out how well-prepared today’s students are to participate fully in society. If you’ve never heard of the Programme for International Student Assessment – PISA – and you’ve got about 12 minutes to spare, grab a comfortable chair. PISA – Measuring student success around the world is a playful primer on the world’s most comprehensive and rigorous survey of student performance.


This video will help you to understand why the OECD’s number-crunchers trigger such intense debate about the state of education around the world every time they release the results of the latest PISA survey. You’ll discover some interesting facts about how 15-year-olds learn and how the best education systems teach them. And you can even test your own ability to calculate the number of ingredients required to create the perfect pizza.


So take this animated tour of PISA. You’ll learn a lot—and you won’t be tested on any of it!


Grade repetition is an education policy that elicits strong feelings among educators, psychologists and parents.


But does this policy achieve its ultimate aim: to offer better – and more equitable – opportunities for education?


Not according to the most recent PISA results. As the latest issue of PISA in Focus notes, countries where students repeat grades more frequently tend to have worse performance results overall, and students’ socio-economic backgrounds have a greater impact on their results. The same is true in countries where weak or disruptive students are transferred to other schools.


More than a quarter of 15-year-olds in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain reported that they had repeated a grade at some point during their school careers. But more than 97% of students in Finland reported that they had never repeated a grade, and in Japan and Korea, grade repetition is virtually non-existent – and these three countries are among the highest performers in the PISA tests.


Not only do PISA results show that countries with high rates of grade repetition are also those that show poorer student performance, but the policy of having students repeat grades can be costly for countries. For example, in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, the cost of using grade repetition for one age group is equivalent to 10% or more of the annual national expenditure on primary- and secondary-school education; and the social cost per student can be as high as USD 11 000 or more. Imagine the teaching staff and educational resources that could be bought with that amount of money and used to help students individually and prevent them from falling behind...


School systems that transfer students more frequently because of low academic achievement, behavioural problems or special learning needs also tend to show a stronger relationship between students’ socio-economic background and their performance in school, and a wider gap in performance among schools. This suggests that transferring students tends to be associated with socio-economic segregation in school systems, where students from advantaged backgrounds end up in better-performing schools while students from disadvantaged backgrounds end up in poorer-performing schools.


Which brings us back to the rationale that should underlie every education policy: Does it ensure that students are offered the best possible and most equitable opportunities for education? The results from PISA speak for themselves.

It is not easy to keep adolescents motivated and engaged in school, when they have new interests and are going through important physical and social changes. Yet this is what lower secondary education needs to do. This level of education is when students need to consolidate the skills from primary education that allow them to continue either to academic or vocational education. It is also when the process of disengaging and dropping out can start if students are not well supported.


But across OECD countries, there is still not much evidence on what really works: How can lower secondary succeed in raising student skills and in preventing drop out? How should teachers be best prepared to teach adolescent students? How can schools ensure that students are engaged and motivated? Should lower secondary be provided in separate schools or remain with primary or with upper secondary education?


These are the questions Norway was looking into when we started working hand in hand with them to support their reform. The new report Improving Lower Secondary Education in Norway presents analysis and recommendations focused on improving teaching practice, making schools effectively respond to adolescent needs, ensuring smooth transitions from primary and into upper secondary – all in a framework of ensuring implementation in a decentralised environment.


But a vital aspect of our work with Norway has also been our continuous consultation with key stakeholders to ensure their engagement in the policy implementation process.


We started piloting this innovative approach towards improving schools in Mexico and have consolidated it with Norway. The external OECD analysis and the engaged consultation between OECD and stakeholders leads to greater take up later when the reform is to be implemented. This process is greatly enhanced with participation in the OECD Seminar for Leaders in Education Improvement. For Norway, this tailored seminar combined a 4 day visit to the Ontario school system with high calibre speakers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and team work among participants.


It was challenging for us to organise: we had to find an education system that was relevant to Norway’s key challenges and had valuable policy lessons. Ontario was an excellent model. We then worked with Harvard Graduate School of Education professors and with a local partner (the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)) to shape and deliver the Seminar.


Participants worked hard every day and finished the Seminar with the initial design of an action plan for their lower secondary reform. They pointed as most valuable:

  • the possibility to learn from another education system by actually visiting schools and meeting policy makers;
  • the opportunity for a group representing the different policy levels in Norway to meet away to from the daily pressures with time to think through together on the actions, priorities and processes needed to make reform happen.


From our experience with Mexico and Norway, the improving schools process, which includes analysis, recommendations and consultation, is often “transformational” for participants. The long term impact is important: looking and reflecting together as a team can ensure that joint ownership is developed on the policy reform. In Norway, the report Improving Lower Secondary Education in Norway and the OECD Seminar have contributed to the implementation of a reform that by targeting lower secondary, will contribute to improve overall student achievement. We are proud of the results.


Full information on the report "Improving Lower Secondary Education in Norway"

OECD Seminar for Norwegian Leaders in Education Improvement

More information on the review methodology is available on our site:


Although Korea is a great success story for economic development, it faces major challenges ahead to sustain growth and social cohesion. It's got a lot to do with demographics and the Global Green Growth Summit held in Seoul last week heard about how early childhood education and care can play a key role.


Did you know that Korea’s population will go from one of the youngest populations in OECD today to the second oldest by 2050? And the fertility rate is very low. Why? One factor is the high cost of education and another is the trade-offs that Korean women confront between career and family responsibilities.


So making available affordable high-quality early childhood education and care is essential so that women can continue to work, confident that their children are being well looked after in a strong early learning environment.


And more family-friendly employment policies would also help. There is a tremendous untapped potential for Korea’s future development by enabling women to play a stronger role in the economy.


But of course, access to affordable high-quality early childhood education isn’t just for children of working parents. All children need to have the opportunity to experience a high quality early learning environment, regardless of their family income and circumstances, to foster economic growth and social cohesion.  


Korea is working to improve affordability of early childhood education and care by moving towards making it free for five year olds and increasing means-tested subsidies for younger children. And to harmonise quality, it is introducing a common curriculum for all 5 year-olds in kindergarten and in day-care. These are steps in the right direction, but Korea needs to go further still so that all children can attend high-quality early childhood education or childcare services, regardless of their familiy's financial resources.      


To learn more about the challenges Korea faces and the OECD’s recommendations, see A framework for growth and social cohesion in Korea.  


It’s been quite the week for e-education news: On Monday, US publisher McGraw-Hill launched its first all-digital, cloud-based textbook for primary and secondary school students while UK publisher Pearson announced a cloud-based digital programme for mathematics and reading at the primary and lower secondary levels; on Tuesday the OECD published the results of the first-ever international survey of digital literacy among 15-year-olds; and later in the week, a non-profit education organisation in the United States reported the results of a poll showing that some 40% of US middle- and high-school students think that online learning has become an essential part of schooling.


Up until now, most e-textbooks at all levels of education were simply PDF versions of print books. Not only was there was little or no added value, in many cases, e-textbooks were less useful to students, as it was difficult to highlight chunks of text or scribble margin notes to help with studying. Not surprisingly, these e-books held little appeal for students. In fact, a recent study by the non-profit arm of the Pearson Foundation shows that 55% of university students prefer print over digital textbooks.


A new generation of e-textbooks offers more than a digital version of the print book. They come with all kinds of extras, including presentations, assessments and animation clips, making the learning experience more interactive, engaging and user-friendly. And they’re accessible from any device with a browser.


While these developments in education publishing could go a long way towards improving students' digital literacy, there is a risk that they could deepen the so-called "digital divide" if access to essential hardware isn’t assured. Among many other findings, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey noted that the computer-to-student ratio in schools rose, on average, over the past decade in countries that participated in the survey. But that's not saying that everyone has access to a computer at school. And that divide is not only between those students who do and don't have access to a computer or hand-held device, but also between those who can easily navigate through the digital environment – because they have had more opportunities to explore that environment – and those who can't. Educators must take care that they are providing equal opportunities to all students to use and benefit from these new learning platforms.

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