Assessment, EdTech & Design

Is the Sky the Limit to Educational Improvement?

The world is rapidly becoming a different place, and the challenges to individuals and societies imposed by globalization and modernization are widely acknowledged. Increasingly diverse and interconnected populations, rapid technological change in the workplace and in everyday life, and the instantaneous availability of vast amounts of information represent but a few of these new demands. In this globalized world, individuals and countries that invest heavily in education benefit socially and economically from that choice, and increasingly so. Among the 30 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries with the largest expansion of college education over the last decades, most still see rising earnings differentials for college graduates, suggesting that an increase in knowledge workers does not lead to a decrease in their pay as is the case for low-skilled workers.

The other player in the globalization process is technological development, but this too depends on education, not just because tomorrow’s knowledge workers and innovators require high levels of education, but also because a highly-educated workforce is a pre-requisite for adopting and absorbing new technologies and increasing productivity. But education reaches well beyond the economic dimensions; it is the key to enable individuals to live in, and contribute to, a multi-faceted and sustainable world as active and responsible citizens and to appreciate and build on different values, beliefs, and cultures.

In a purely quantitative sense, education has done rather well. With three exceptions, OECD countries have seen rapidly rising numbers of better qualified people, with an average increase of 40 percent in college graduation rates over the last decade. But in a fast-changing world, producing more of the same education will not suffice to address the challenges of the future.

Changing Demands on Education Systems

A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last for their students’ lifetime. Today, schools need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve problems that we don’t yet know will arise. Education also has a key role to play to foster sustainable values.

The dilemma for educators is that routine cognitive skills, the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitize, automate, and outsource. Educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge in novel situations.

Take mathematics as an example. Traditionally mathematics is often taught in an abstract world, in ways that are removed from authentic contexts – for example, students are taught the techniques of arithmetic, then given lots of arithmetic computations to complete; or they are shown how to solve particular types of equations, then given lots of similar equations to solve. But to succeed today, students need to have an understanding of the fundamental concepts of mathematics, they need to be able to translate a new situation or problem they face into a form that exposes the relevance of mathematics, to make the problem amenable to mathematical treatment, to identify and use the relevant mathematical knowledge to solve the problem, and then to evaluate the solution in the original problem context.

Or take literacy as another example. In the past, literacy was mainly about learning to read, a set of technical skills that individuals would acquire once for a lifetime in order to process an established body of coded knowledge. Today, literacy is about reading for learning, the capacity and motivation to identify, understand, interpret, create, and communicate knowledge, using written materials associated with varying situations in continuously changing contexts. In the past, it was sufficient to direct students to an encyclopedia to find the answer to a question, and they could generally rely on what they found to be true. Today, literacy is about managing non-linear information structures, building one’s own mental representation of information as one finds one’s own way through hypertext on the Internet, about dealing with ambiguity, interpreting and resolving conflicting pieces of information.

Similarly, conventional approach of schools to problems was breaking them down into manageable bits and pieces, and then teaching students the techniques to solve them. But today individuals create value by synthesizing the disparate bits. This is about curiosity, open-mindedness, and making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated – which requires being familiar with and receptive to knowledge in other fields than our own.

The world is also no longer divided into specialists and generalist. What counts are the “versatilists” who are able to apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences.

The world is also no longer divided into specialists and generalist. What counts are the “versatilists” who are able to apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles. They are capable of not only of constantly adapting but also of constantly learning and growing, of positioning themselves and repositioning themselves in a fast changing world.

Last but not least, in today’s schools, students typically learn individually, and at the end of the school year, schools certify their individual achievements. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the more important is the capacity of individuals to collaborate and orchestrate. In the flat world, everything that is our proprietary knowledge today will be a commodity available to everyone else tomorrow. As Thomas Friedman puts it, there is a shift from a world of stocks – with knowledge that is stacked up somewhere depreciating rapidly in value – to a world in which the enriching power of communication and collaborative flows is increasing.

These kinds of competencies are the focus of OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and, since first results emerged in 2001, Canadian 15-year-olds have fared well against their counterparts internationally. At the same time, outcomes in Canada have remained mainly flat since 2001, while other countries have continued to raise quality and equity in learning outcomes. It is therefore important for Canada to look ahead.

Responding to the Challenges


Performance on international comparisons cannot be tied to money alone. Spending per student accounts for less than a quarter of the observed performance variation across countries on PISA. In contrast, the kind of spending choices countries make have far greater significance, with most of the high-performing nations now prioritising the quality of teachers over the size of classes.

Looking beyond financial resources, PISA suggests that schools and countries where students work in a climate characterised by high performance expectations and the readiness to invest effort, good teacher-student relations, and high teacher morale tend to achieve better results. Many countries have pursued a shift in public and governmental concern away from the mere control over the resources and content of education towards a focus on outcomes. This has driven efforts to articulate the expectations that societies have in relation to learning outcomes and to translate these expectations into educational goals and standards. Ambitious educational standards have influenced many of the top performing education systems in important ways, helping them to establish rigorous, focused, and coherent content at all grade levels; reduce overlap in curricula across grades; reduce variation in implemented curricula across classrooms; facilitate co-ordination of various policy drivers ranging from curricula to teacher training; and reduce inequity in curricula across socio-economic groups.

Coupled with this trend have been efforts to devolve responsibility to the frontline, enabling schools to become the drivers of educational improvement. In Finland strategic thinking and planning now takes place at every level of the system. Every school discusses what the national vision along with desired standards might mean for them, and every decision is made at the level of those most able to implement it in practice.

In Finland every school discusses what the national vision along with desired standards might mean for them, and every decision is made at the level of those most able to implement it in practice.

Second, many of the high performing systems also construct effective interventions at the level of the school, providing schools that do not yet succeed with effective support systems. Some countries go even further and intervene at the level of the individual student, developing processes and structures within the school that are able to identify whenever a student is starting to fall behind, and intervening to improve that student’s performance. And importantly, such personalization in these countries is in terms of flexible learning pathways through the education system rather than in terms of individualised goals or institutional tracking, which PISA shows to lower performance expectations for students and to provide easy ways out for teachers and schools to defer problems rather than solving them. Intervention and support do not mean applying pre-packaged interventions in mechanical sequence; instead, they are about diagnosing problems and tailoring solutions accordingly.

Third, many high performing systems share a commitment to professionalized teaching in ways that imply that teachers are on a par with other professions in terms of diagnosis, the application of evidence-based practices, and professional pride. They pay great attention to how the pool is established from which they recruit their teachers; how they recruit; how they select their staff; the kind of initial training their recruits get before they present themselves for employment; how they mentor new recruits and induct them into their service; what kind of continuing training they get; how their compensation is structured; how they reward their best performers and how they improve the performance of those who are struggling; and how they provide opportunities for the best performers to acquire more status and responsibility.

External accountability systems are an essential part of this, but they are not enough. Among OECD countries, we find countless tests and reforms that have resulted in giving schools more money or taking money away from them, developing greater prescription on school standards or less prescription, making classes larger or smaller, often without measurable effects.

Instead, devolved decision-making needs to go hand in hand with intelligent accountability, and what this means is the move beyond approaches to external accountability towards building capacity and confidence for professional accountability in ways that encourage networks of schools to stimulate and spread innovation as well as collaborate to provide curriculum diversity, extended services, and professional support. Success with this will require multi-layered assessment systems that coherently extend from students, to schools, to regions and nations, and which do not operate in a vacuum but are part of a comprehensive set of instruments that extend to instructional material as well as to teacher training.

Such assessments recognize that successful learning is as much about the process as it is about facts and figures, and they do not just produce school marks but try to provide a window into students’ understandings and the conceptual strategies a student uses to solve a problem, with dynamic task contexts in which prior actions may stimulate unpredictable reactions that in turn influence subsequent strategies and options. They do not take learning time away from students, but try to enhance the learning of students, of teachers, of school administrators and policymakers, through building frameworks for lateral accountability. That means generating information that can be acted upon and that provides productive and usable feedback for all intended users, so that teachers understand what the assessment reveals about students’ thinking, and school administrators and policymakers obtain the information they need to create better opportunities for student learning.


In the past, when economies only needed a small slice of well-educated workers, it was sufficient – and perhaps efficient – for governments to invest a large sum into a small elite to lead the country. But the social and economic cost of low educational performance has risen very substantially, and PISA shows that the best performing education systems now get all young people to leave school with strong foundation skills.

When one could still assume that what is learned in school will last for a lifetime, teaching content and routine cognitive skills were at the centre of education. Today, where individuals can access content on Google, where routine cognitive skills are being digitized or outsourced, and where jobs are changing rapidly, education systems need to enable people to become lifelong learners, to manage complex ways of thinking and complex ways of working that computers can’t take over easily.

That requires a very different calibre of teachers. When teaching was about explaining prefabricated content, school systems could tolerate low teacher quality. And when teacher quality was low, governments tended to tell their teachers exactly what to do and exactly how they want it done, using prescriptive methods of administrative control and accountability. What we see in the most advanced systems now is that making teaching a profession of high-level knowledge workers, not higher salaries, is what makes teaching so attractive in countries as different as Finland, Japan, or Singapore.

People who see themselves as candidates for the professions are not attracted by schools organized like an assembly line, with teachers working as interchangeable widgets. That is why international comparisons show a very different work organization in high performing systems, with the status, professional autonomy, and the high-quality education that go with professional work, with effective systems of teacher evaluation, and with differentiated career paths for teachers.

This is why high performing education systems tend to create a “knowledge rich” education system, in which teachers and school principals act as partners and have the authority to act, the necessary information to do so, and access to effective support systems to assist them in implementing change. What distinguishes the top-performer Finland is that it places the emphasis on building various ways in which networks of schools stimulate and spread innovation as well as collaborate to provide curriculum diversity, extended services, and professional support. It fosters strong approaches to leadership and a variety of system leadership roles that help to reduce between-school variation through system-wide networking and to build lateral accountability. It has moved from “hit and miss” policies to establishing universal high standards; from uniformity to embracing diversity; from a focus on provision to a focus on outcomes; from managing inputs and a bureaucratic approach to education towards devolving responsibilities and enabling outcomes; and from talking about equity to delivering equity. It is a system where schools no longer receive prefabricated wisdom but take initiatives on the basis of data and best practice.

An investment in improvement will be worth it. A study carried out by the OECD in collaboration with Stanford University suggests that a modest goal of having Canada boost its average PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years – far less than the most rapidly improving education systems in the OECD achieved between 2000 and 2009 – could imply a gain of over five trillion Canadian dollars for the Canadian economy over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010.

Addressing the challenges will become ever more important as the world’s best education systems – not simply improvement by national standards – increasingly become the yardstick to success. The world has become indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving to frailty, and ignorant to custom or practice. Success will go to those individuals and nations that are swift to adapt, slow to complain, and open to change. The task for educators and policymakers is to ensure that countries rise to this challenge.

EN BREF – Les systèmes éducatifs contemporains doivent permettre aux gens de devenir des apprenants à vie, de gérer des modes complexes de réflexion et de maîtriser des façons complexes de travailler que les ordinateurs ne peuvent aisément prendre en charge. La tâche des éducateurs et des responsables de politiques consiste à s’assurer que les pays relèvent ce défi. Les systèmes d’éducation à haute performance comme ceux de la Finlande et de Singapour tendent à être « riches en connaissances ». Le personnel enseignant et les directions d’école y ont l’autorité et l’information nécessaire pour agir et ont accès à des systèmes efficaces de soutien qui les aident à apporter des changements. Il vaut la peine d’investir dans l’amélioration. D’après une étude menée par l’OCDE et l’Université Stanford, si le Canada réussit à rehausser la note moyenne au PISA de 25 points sur les 20 prochaines années, l’économie canadienne progresserait de plus de cinq billions de dollars pendant la vie de la génération née en 2010.

Meet the Expert(s)

Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher is Special Advisor on Education Policy to OECD’s Secretary-General. He is responsible for the development and analysis of benchmarks on the performance of education systems and on the impact of knowledge and skills on economic and social outcomes, including the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

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