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The cost of bad education

9 February 2010
by Brian Keeley

Improving our schools could bring “truly enormous” economic benefits, according to new research from the OECD.

The calculations suggest that raising the educational performance of students in the OECD area to levels found in countries with the strongest schools could result in economic gains of $260 trillion – more than €185 trillion – over the lifetimes of people born in 2010.

The research comes from the OECD’s PISA project, which carries out three-yearly assessments of 15-year-olds in more than 60 countries to determine if they have the knowledge and skills needed for adult life and the world of work. Over the years, the assessments have shown big variations between OECD countries but also within countries: some, such as Finland, do a good job of educating most students while others have much more of a mix of strong and weak performers.

raising the educational performance of students in the OECD area could result in economic gains of $260 trillion

Why would improving education levels make such a difference to economic growth? The answer lies in human capital, which The Economist helpfully defines as “the stuff that enables people to earn a living”. In recent decades, economists have come increasingly to recognise that skilled and educated workers drive economic growth. Investing in human capital – i.e. investing in, training, education and healthcare – brings economic returns not just for individuals but for a country’s overall economic performance.

But there’s often a reluctance to make the changes needed to raise student performance. Education is, of course, about much more than just economic outcomes, and governments, parents and teachers can be reluctant to tamper with approaches that may be rooted in national or cultural identities or where there may be powerful vested interests.

But, as PISA’s Andreas Schleicher points out, change can happen: “Poland launched a massive reform of its education systems in 1999 … and the results are quite spectacular,” he says in this Youtube interview with The Lisbon Council. “Often we are held back by imagining that education reform takes so much, so long to complete but the example of Poland shows that in a reasonable timeframe you can actually achieve a lot.”

Useful links

OECD report: The High Cost of Low Educational Performance: The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes

OECD Insights: Human Capital

OECD work on education

OECD educationtoday website

Lisbon Council

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