US pupils lagging behind

A new report, sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, explores the “educational shortcomings” of US pupils compared to their international counterparts. In particular, the authors wanted to know whether the picture is skewed by poor performance among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. They conclude that it is not just disadvantaged children who are lagging behind; it’s advantaged children as well.

The analysis used state-by-state data from the 2011 eighth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, as well as international data from PISA 2012. PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) is a survey conducted every three years by the OECD. It aims to compare the performance of schools and education systems worldwide by assessing 15/16 year olds in three main subjects – mathematics, science, and reading – with a special focus on one subject per survey. PISA 2012 focused on mathematics.

The authors found that, when viewed from a global perspective, US schools seem to do as badly teaching those from advantaged families as they do teaching pupils from disadvantaged families. Overall, the US proficiency rate in maths (35%) places the country 27th among the 34 OECD countries that participated in PISA. The ranking was actually slightly lower for pupils from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (20th). It is important to note that there are significant variations across states.

Although the focus of the report is on maths, the authors show similar results for proficiency in science and literacy. They conclude that the US has two achievement gaps to be bridged – the well-known gap between its advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, but also the distance between itself and its peers abroad. This research suggests that the latter is not a socioeconomic issue.

The report has also been published in Education Next.

Source: Not Just the Problems of Other People’s Children: U.S. Student Performance in Global Perspective (2014), Harvard’s Program on Education Policy.

English teenagers do well at problem solving…

A new PISA study has been published, responding to the question of whether today’s 15-year-olds are acquiring the problem-solving skills needed in the 21st century. The study presents results from the PISA 2012 assessment of problem solving, which was administered on computer to about 85,000 teenagers in 44 countries and economies.

Singapore, Korea, and Japan top the performance table. However, England, which is often cited as “underperforming” in international tests, is 11th, with pupils performing significantly better in problem solving, on average, than pupils in other countries who show similar performance in mathematics, reading, and science.

In general boys outperformed girls in problem solving, and the study also found that the impact of socio-economic status on problem-solving performance is weaker than it is on performance in mathematics, reading, or science.

Source: PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving: Students’ skills in tackling real-life problems (Volume V) (2014), OECD.

Education Media Centre starts work

The launch of the PISA survey also marked the start of a new initiative in the UK – the Education Media Centre (EMC).

The EMC aims to improve the public and media understanding of education research and evidence. It does this by making it easy for the media to access useful academic and research expertise on the education stories they are covering in newspapers, on radio, TV, and the internet.

The ultimate goal is to raise awareness and knowledge of this research amongst the public. The EMC is a project of the Coalition for Evidence-based Education, an alliance of researchers, policy makers and practitioners who are interested in improving the way research evidence is used, and exchanged, across the sector.

PISA highlights the attainment gap within countries

The results of the latest PISA survey have been published. PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) is a survey conducted every three years by the OECD. It aims to compare the performance of schools and education systems worldwide by assessing 15/16 year olds in three main subjects – mathematics, science, and reading – with a special focus on one subject per survey. PISA 2012 was the fifth survey, with a special focus on mathematics. Around 510,000 pupils sat a two-hour paper-based test, with some taking an additional computer-based test. All the pupils, and their head teachers, also completed questionnaires about their background.

While much of the media coverage has emphasised the differences between countries, the 2012 survey shows that the difference in mathematics performance within countries is greater. Over 300 points – the equivalent of more than seven years of schooling – often separates the highest and the lowest performers in a country. Socio-economic differences were also important – across OECD countries, a more socio-economically advantaged pupil scores 78 points higher in mathematics – the equivalent of nearly two years of schooling – than a less-advantaged pupil.

The UK average mathematics score was 494 points (the same as the OECD average), around the average in terms of performance differences in mathematics across socio-economic groups (82 point difference between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students), and average in terms of the strength of the relationship between mathematics performance and socio-economic status.

A number of suggestions are put forward in the Results in Focus:

  • Target low performance, regardless of pupils’ socio-economic status, either by targeting low-performing schools or low-performing pupils within schools, depending on the extent to which low performance is concentrated by school;
  • Target disadvantaged children through additional instructional resources or economic assistance;
  • Apply more universal policies to raise standards for all pupils (eg, altering the content and pace of the curriculum, improving teaching techniques, changing the age of entry into school); and
  • Include marginalised pupils in mainstream schools and classrooms.

OECD surveys skills across countries and populations

The OECD has launched a new Survey of Adult Skills, which builds on its PISA survey by checking the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills of the adult population. The survey has been completed by 166,000 adults aged 16–65 in 24 countries.

According to the OECD, the central message from the survey is that what people know, and what they can do with what they know, has a huge impact on their life chances. For example, the median hourly wage of workers scoring highly in literacy (eg, make complex inferences from written texts) is 60% higher than those with a low score (eg, read simple texts to locate a single piece of information).

The survey also shows the dramatic changes that have taken place in recent decades, with many countries now catching and out-performing the US and UK. For example, while the literacy scores of young Koreans (16–24) are much higher than their older (55–65) peers, UK literacy scores are the same for both groups.

Despite much attention being paid to differences between countries, the report points out that 90% of the variation in the survey is within countries, with all nations having significant numbers of people with a low level skills.

The report recommends some key points for policy:

  • Provide high-quality initial education and lifelong learning opportunities.
  • Make lifelong learning opportunities accessible to all.
  • Make sure all children have a strong start in education.

Source: OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (2013), OECD.

Does paying teachers based on performance improve teaching?

Performance-based pay is worth considering in some contexts, but making it work well can be a challenge, according to a recent PISA in focus review, which looks at the effects of performance-based pay for teachers on pupil performance. It shows that in countries with comparatively low teachers’ salaries in relation to national income, using performance-related pay results in better pupil performance, while in countries where teachers are relatively well paid, the opposite is true.

The report also highlights challenges to making a performance-based pay system work well, and the need to have valid measures of performance in place if the system is to be fair and accurate. It emphasises that pay can only play a part, and countries that have made teaching an attractive profession have done so by raising the status of teaching and offering real career prospects, and not through pay alone.

Source: Does performance-based pay improve teaching? (2012), PISA in focus, 12