Political Risk and the ODA Definition

TrocaireToday’s post is by Dr Lorna Gold, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Trócaire, the Irish Catholic Agency for World Development and the Irish member of CIDSE and Caritas Internationalis. It is followed by a reply from Erik Solheim, Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, the body that oversees ODA.

Official Development Assistance (ODA) as we know it would appear to be rapidly going out of fashion. Just over ten years ago there was a massive push on to deliver the MDGs and to increase aid levels dramatically to meet those goals. Only three years ago donors gave $136.7 billion in ODA, amounting to 0.32% of their collective Gross National Income. Just three years later, as discussions around the Post-2105 development framework are progressing, aid is falling and many major donors and institutions are now talking as if ODA is history – the future is now to be found in other types of finance.

The complex challenges the world is now facing, it is argued, require a radically different financing model – one which requires a comprehensive approach to financing, embracing all sources of public and private finance available to developing countries. ODA represents a very small percentage of overall financial resources available, amounting to a mere 2.7% of all public and private financial resources available to developing countries in 2010.

The merits of this comprehensive financing discussion are obvious. Civil society has been at the forefront of such a debate for more than a decade through calls for debt cancellation, fair trade and tax justice. It provides a space to discuss the unfair nature of the global financial system and the need to stem illicit flows through money laundering, tax evasion, reforming institutional mechanisms to bring forth information, recovery of stolen assets and so on. As the focus shifts to the domestic tax base, moreover, such a debate means that the inter-connected nature of global investment finance incentivises rich countries to address commensurate measures. For example, a large part of the agenda around domestic resource mobilisation requires the EU to put in place full country-by-country reporting requirements on public record along the lines of the requirements for the banking industry and beyond those for extractive and timber companies.

Whilst this debate is welcome, we cannot afford to lose sight of the ongoing importance of ODA as a key means of addressing extreme poverty. ODA may well represent a very small proportion of overall financial resources available to developing countries, but it still accounts for the largest proportion of public international finance available (58%). Moreover, ODA remains a critical source of funding for the Low Income Countries, many of which are fragile states, amounting to 10% of their GDP. It is a critical financial flow for the most vulnerable countries which are unable to readily generate alternative financial flows.

The timing of the emerging discussions around the redefinition of ODA within the OECD-DAC is particularly concerning. Whilst there are certainly technical merits to tidying up the concept and modernising it, one needs to step back and ask whom the move to change the definition is designed to benefit and what the risks are of opening such a debate up at this global juncture?

The main beneficiaries, so far as I can see, are the growing number of OECD donors who are failing to meet their 0.7% commitment to ODA through enabling them to save face. It may come as a surprise that the vast majority of EU citizens actually want their governments to meet their ODA commitments! Despite austerity measures which have led to severe cut backs on domestic public spending, support for ODA on the whole has remained consistently high between 2007 and 2012, with 83% in favour.  The same governments, however, are facing massive fiscal problems and very unlikely to keep their promise on reaching the UN target without significant sacrifices. There is potentially a political prize to be gained by widening the DAC criteria on technical grounds. It would enable donors to meet the 0.7% target with virtually zero additional finance.

Opening the debate around the definition of ODA, however, entails a number of serious risks at this political juncture. First and foremost, the move to change criteria amongst donor countries will do nothing to engender trust in already fractious multi-lateral processes.  On the contrary, it will only serve to undermine them further. The repeated failure to honour promises on ODA in the context of the Financing for Development process – but now trying to change the goalposts behind closed doors – will be seen as a cynical move on the part of the OECD donors. A debate about redefining criteria is inappropriate until all donors are meeting their current commitment to 0.7% as currently defined.

Secondly, opening the discussion at this point, where vested interests are so dominant, risks undermining the integrity of ODA as a set of financial instruments which have poverty eradication as their primary objective. Certainly ODA is not perfect, but it has specific characteristics which reflect its principal goal in addressing poverty through durable development impacts which go beyond financial transfers. The most disadvantaged LICs who rely on ODA and have limited access to other funding streams would be most at risk of any change.

Thirdly, the broadening of the DAC criteria could significantly undermine public support for development cooperation within OECD countries. ODA is by and large regarded as something which has credibility. In Ireland, this has been a hard won fight which risks being undermined if the criteria are changed to allow for the inclusion of non-poverty related expenditure.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, engaging in a divisive debate about criteria is a distraction. It diverts energy from the real issues of finding additional sources of finance, potentially creating a false illusion that more is being done on the basis of creative accounting.

There are valid arguments for discussing all the elements of international finance which need to be harnessed in the context of a comprehensive financing framework to meet the post-2015 framework. The imperative to find new sources of finance and address systemic issues, however, should not be used as a means for OECD donors to shirk their responsibility to their ODA commitments. The attempts to change the definition of ODA must be avoided if the critical multilateral processes over the next two years are to have a future.

REPLY FROM ERIK SOLHEIM

Lorna, I could not agree with you more! Development assistance has been a great historical success. It has contributed to the fantastic development success of the last decades, bringing 1 % of humanity out of extreme poverty every year since 1990.

ODA works well and there is no point trying to fix what is not broken. We need more ODA, not less. We should promote the examples of nations who are in the lead. UK reaching 0,7 % this year. Sweden stable at 1 % over many years. Turkey with the biggest increase in development spending in the OECD.

The most important thing is that ODA promotes poverty reduction in the countries that need it the most, and reflect the spirit of the 0.7% target made by donor countries. It may very well be that the definition needs a tidying up.

In this spirit a debate is not dangerous, it is necessary. We may possibly decide to set stricter targets for ODA reaching the least developed countries. We may be better in using ODA catalytically in increasing other sources of development resources. Domestic resource mobilization through taxes can be helped by initiatives like Tax for development.

More importantly, we are working on modernising the way in which we measure and monitor wider development flows than ODA. Everyone acknowledge the importance of private sector flows as well as peace keeping. All development efforts should somehow be accounted for, acknowledged and encouraged. They should be added to ODA, not replace ODA.

We know that designing development programmes to fit the ODA definition can lead to poor outcomes, particularly when it comes to maximising the flow of finance. We must have a system that allows for innovation and the maximisation of funds and that does much better at leveraging additional money out of the private sector. One way to do this is to have broader, transparent measures of development finance from the perspectives of both what effort the donor is making and what the benefit is to the recipient. These would be new measures, separate to ODA.

The DAC will be working on these through 2014 and once we have a more substantive idea of what they look like, we can have a look at whether we need to tidy up ODA.

The rise of the south is probably the most important development in the world over the last couple of decades. It has transformed the power, the politics, the economics, the development.  One result is an increase in south-South cooperation which has changed the world of development finance. We have to have open doors and consult with all relevant partners.  We are working with the UN to produce measures that are not just for DAC donors, but that can support the post-2015 targets.

My view is that the OECD has an a lot to offer in terms of providing robust statistical systems and has an obligation to support the wider international community by making them available. Beyond this, I and many members of the DAC and its Secretariat are out on the road talking with providers of South-South cooperation, China, the Arab donor community, partner countries, civil society and private sector about this project.

We’re also heavily involved in the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. This forum and the high level meeting in Mexico will be crucial in making the international development system more effective. We’re also working with an Expert Reference Group and sharing our work and many papers on line. Nothing will be behind closed doors!

I will be happy to continue the dialogue – in Dublin or in Paris. Thanks again for your blog!

Erik Solheim

 

How the OECD could help shape UK financial education policy

Click to download the OECD brochure
Click to download the OECD brochure

Today’s post is by Julia Kukiewicz, Editor and Lyndsey Burton, Founder of Choose, a consumer information site that’s been covering personal finance in the UK since 2003.

As world leaders traded notes on the financial services that will shape consumers’ lives at the G20 in September, OECD head Angel Gurría had a few thoughts for the consumers themselves. “Individuals are increasingly responsible for taking key financial decisions in a complex and volatile environment,” he told reporters. In most developed countries, public welfare is shrinking and the products growing up to replace it are complicated, Gurría added.

The speech underlined the OECD’s continuing support for financial education, even as critics of government and private consumer education projects grow louder. Such criticisms threaten to derail the project of widespread financial education before it even gets off the ground in countries like the UK. But OECD support can and should help. In this post, we’ll look at the challenges the UK project is facing and how policymakers could overcome them.

First, some background: the UK will bring financial education into the school curriculum for all children between the ages of 11 and 16 from September 2014. As in other developed countries, the UK always had a financial education movement but it has grown in response to the financial crisis. Financial education’s inclusion in the national curriculum (the guide for all lessons in the state schools that are the majority in the UK school system) has been seen as a grassroots victory. Consumer groups pushed for the measure with considerable public support.

As the UK prepares to roll out financial education, however, it faces a number of problems:

  • High expectations among those that supported the measure and who expect to see results.
  • Increasing concern that financial education will be co-opted by banks pursuing their own interests and, in particular, choosing to push financial education as a replacement for greater regulation.

Managing high expectations

High expectations might not seem like such a big problem and, in some ways, they aren’t: it’s great that people are excited about financial education. If those expectations are going to be fulfilled in a way that we can see, however, it’s going to mean a real commitment to big ideas in the classroom and to measuring the real effects of those classes on consumer behaviour.

For example, at a recent Treasury hearing into financial education, consumer group representatives said they believed that financial education in schools will be ”crucial” to avoid mis-selling scandals and other problems, like high levels of debt, in the future. They also argued that children’s education could flow back to their parents. “Prevention is better than cure, being both cheaper, effective and potentially less damaging,” the UK’s leading financial education charity – PFEG – summed up. That’s quite a claim however, and one that needs to be measured.

From 2015, the UK – alongside some other countries – will start to monitor pupil’s financial literacy through PISA testing, perhaps the world’s largest comparison of education levels between countries. This type of monitoring is vital if we’re going to foster effective policies that can help children grow up into informed consumers.

Where do banks fit in?

Similarly, many don’t see any problem with banks being involved in financial education: after all, they have a lot of money to spend on it. In the UK, groups like PFEG, who provide resources to schools that want to offer lessons in personal finance, include resources provided by the UK’s big six banks and also help bank employees to come into the classroom to deliver their messages. The charity says that teachers and pupils are happy with the results but, critics say, allowing banks to lead education will inevitably lead to lessons that could encourage very young consumers to take on debt for example, and will privilege learning about products over learning mathematics skills that may make them more financially capable in the future (pdf).

Currently UK MPs are debating what role the Money Advice Service, a general consumer interest and information group which primarily offers basic money advice face-to-face and online, should take in school based financial education. It has been suggested that it should be up to the Money Advice Service, as the Government’s primary consumer help service, to take a much more active role, and reduce the influence of the banks. The OECD has strongly supported levies on the financial industry to pay for consumer protection measures and, in the UK, a statutory levy is what pays for the Money Advice Service. As it stands however, the Money Advice Service wants to take just a supervisory role in school based financial education, setting up standards and codes of practice for the UK’s many charity and non-profit financial education groups to follow.

With respect to concerns about banks’ involvement in educational resources and delivery then, UK policymakers could do well to look overseas and see how other countries have dealt with these competing interests.

At a much higher level, the UK could also seek out the experiences of other countries as it attempts to balance education with regulation of the banking sector.

Many have argued for example, that the roots of the financial crisis can be found in policies that failed to protect consumers, not in a lack of consumer education; regulators allowed the subprime mortgage market to thrive in the US, for example, that consumers chose to take out those loans was just part of the problem. As in other countries, the UK Government was already inclined to implement measures that could increase consumer protection as a result of global pressures. However, measurement of the effectiveness of regulation, as well as financial education by bodies such as the OECD is needed to help ensure that Governments don’t sidestep their responsibilities to protect consumers by favoring just one approach.

How the OECD can help

The OECD International Network for Financial Education (INFE) has been attempting to monitor these financial education policies and identify best practices since 2010. As it sets up its classes, the UK desperately needs to see what types of financial education have been effective in actually changing behavior in other countries.

The work of INFE as well as the results of PISA research into financial education could be a useful resource as the UK Government looks for a realistic view of what education can do.

The independent judgment of the OECD, in the form of PISA testing, for example, will also be a key resource for the UK as it looks to monitor the results of the financial education it does choose to implement in schools.

Finally, the OECD can encourage governments, in the UK and elsewhere, to strengthen their commitment to protect consumers from harmful products and harmful practices at the point of sale. This commitment is not incompatible with the drive for greater financial education: the two should go hand in hand.

Useful links

Public consultation: Guidelines for private and not-for-profit stakeholders in financial education. INFE is developing guidelines intended to address the involvement of private and not-for profit stakeholders in the development and implementation of national strategies for financial education. The draft text of the guidelines is now available for public comment. Comments received will be taken into account when preparing the final version of the guidelines. Submission deadline is 10 January 2014

Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves?

Cheats?
Cheats?

Today’s post, courtesy of educationtoday, is by Andreas Schleicher, in charge of the OECD PISA Programme and Deputy Director for Education and Skills as well as Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General.

Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes. When a Chinese does, the first reflex seems to be that they must have been doping; or if that’s taking it too far, that it must have been the result of inhumane training.

There seem to be parallels to this in education. Only hours after results from the latest PISA assessment showed Shanghai’s school system leading the field, Time magazine concluded the Chinese must have been cheating. They didn’t bother to read the PISA technical report, which shows there was no cheating, whatsoever, involved. Nor did they speak with the experts who had drawn the samples or with the international auditors who had carefully reviewed and validated the sample for Shanghai and those of other countries.

Others were quick to suggest that resident internal migrants might not be covered by Shanghai’s PISA sample, because years ago those migrants wouldn’t have had access to Shanghai’s schools. But, like many things in China, that has long changed and, as described by PISA, resident migrants were covered by the PISA samples in exactly the way they are covered in other countries and education systems. Still, it seems to be easier to cling to old stereotypes than keep up with changes on the ground (or to read the PISA report).

True, like other emerging economies, Shanghai is still building its education system and not every 15-year-old makes it yet to high school. As a result of this and other factors, the PISA 2012 sample covers only 79% of the 15-year-olds in Shanghai. But that is far from unique. Even the United States, the country with the longest track record of universal high-school education, covered less than 90% of its 15-year-olds in PISA – and it didn’t include Puerto Rico in its PISA sample, a territory that is unlikely to have pulled up US average performance.

International comparisons are never easy and they are never perfect. But anyone who takes a serious look at the facts and figures will concede that the samples used for PISA result in robust and internationally comparable data. They have been carefully designed and validated to be fit for purpose in collaboration with the World’s leading experts, and the tests are administered under strict and internationally comparable conditions. Anyone who really wants to find out can review the underlying data.

Short of arguments about methodology, some people turn to dismissing Shanghai’s strong performance by saying that Shanghai’s students are only good on the kind of tasks that are easy to teach and easy to test, and that those things are losing in relevance because they are also the kind of things that are easy to digitise, automate and outsource. But while the latter is true, the former is not. Consider this: Only 2% of American 15-year-olds and 3% of European ones reach the highest level of math performance in PISA, demonstrating that they can conceptualise, generalise and use math based on their investigations and apply their knowledge in novel contexts. In Shanghai it is over 30%. Educators in Shanghai have simply understood that the world economy will pay an ever-rising premium on excellence and no longer value people for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.

PISA didn’t just test what 15-year-olds know in maths, it also asked them what they believe makes them succeed. In many countries, students were quick to blame everyone but themselves: More than three-quarters of the students in France, an average performer on the PISA test, said the course material was simply too hard, two-thirds said the teacher did not get students interested in the material, and half said their teacher did not explain the concepts well or they were just unlucky. The results are very different for Shanghai. Students there believe they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed. That tells us a lot about school education. And guess which of these two countries keeps improving and which is not? The fact that students in some countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling the values that foster success in education.

And even those who claim that the relative standing of countries in PISA mainly reflects social and cultural factors must concede that educational improvement is possible: In mathematics, countries like Brazil, Turkey, Mexico or Tunisia rose from the bottom; Italy, Portugal and the Russian Federation have advanced to the average of the industrialised world or close to it; Germany and Poland rose from average to good, and Shanghai and Singapore have moved from good to great. Indeed, of the 65 participating countries, 45 saw improvement in at least one subject area. These countries didn’t change their culture, or the composition of their population, nor did they fire their teachers. They changed their educational policies and practices. Learning from these countries should be our focus. We will be cheating ourselves and the children in our schools if we miss that chance.

International comparisons are never easy and they aren’t perfect. But PISA shows what is possible in education, it takes away excuses from those who are complacent, and it helps countries see themselves in the mirror of the educational results and educational opportunities delivered by the world’s educational leaders. The world has become indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice. Success will go to those individuals, institutions and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change. And the task for governments is to help citizens rise to this challenge. PISA can help to make that happen.

Useful links

PISA 2012

Can we really end poverty? The debate

poverty debate
Click to find out more about the debate

What’s it like to be poor? The question might sound dumb, even patronising, but it’s increasingly important to how the development community thinks about poverty. At its heart is the idea that no two people, no two communities, experience poverty in exactly the same way. Causes differ, experiences differ, and so can solutions.

This realisation has deepened greatly over the past 15 years or so, a period covered by the first set of Millennium Development Goals. It’s also a period that has also seen an enormous improvement in how we understand poverty, mainly through the availability of better information. This includes both internationally comparable household surveys and qualitative research like the World Bank’s Voices of the Poor survey.

“Putting these together … we are able to try to understand the different depravations that people experience,” according to Sabina Alkire of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, “and the different things that trap people in depravation in different ways. This kind of information … could feed a more adequate response to poverty.”

Dr. Alkire was one of the speakers at last week’s “Can we really end poverty?” debate in London, which we previewed recently. The debate coincided with the publication of this year’s OECD Development Co-operation Report , which examines the prospects and challenges of eradicating $1.25-a-day, or extreme, poverty by, perhaps, 2030. Many advocates believe this target should be included in the next round of Millennium Development Goals, building on the world’s success in halving extreme poverty over the course of the first set of MDGs.

If the international community is to achieve the goal of eradicating extreme poverty, a number of the panelists argued that it will need to do more to move closer to the lives of poor communities and beyond the big global and national averages that can conceal those who are being left behind.

“It’s great that averages improve, but if some individuals don’t meet those, then those averages don’t count for much,” said Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution, who has been heavily involved with the UN High Level Panel drawing up the post-MDGs development agenda. “We need to be much more fine-grained,” he said, adding that the necessary political will and resources depended on development delivering benefits to all: “We need to be thinking about developing programmes where almost everyone feels they have a stake in the progress of the country.”

Better data and the freer flow of information can help in achieving that, several of the contributors said. It can also go a long way to empowering both local and international communities to press for change. Speaking about the situation in neighbouring India, Priyanthi Fernando of the Centre for Poverty Analysis in Sri Lanka said the country’s freedom of information law had made “a huge difference. Indian bureaucrats don’t like it because they have to be much more accountable, but it has made a difference.”

And referring to the idea of “smart growth,” Jamie Drummond of the ONE advocacy group, pointed to the power that could come from the amount of data that people now have access to. “The exciting thing is when data gets into people’s hands. That’s empowerment, that’s the ‘killer app’ – it’s transformational,” he said, adding that it was “opening up a world of possibilities” to hold leaders and businesses accountable.

Inevitably, any discussion based on the premise of “ending poverty” couldn’t avoid one key question: Can it be done?

“Confident, no,” said Dr. Kharas, “hopeful, yes.” Erik Solheim, chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, was more upbeat. “There’s absolutely no doubt that we can eradicate absolute poverty by 2030,” he said, but then touched on another of the recurring “big picture” themes of the evening – the politics of poverty: “The issue that could stop us is that we’re not able to mobilise the political will.” Climate change was also a threat, he warned, but pointed to the success of Brazil in simultaneously tackling deforestation and reducing poverty. And he finished with an exhortation: “To me we should adopt the slogan of Nike: Just do it!”

Useful links

DAC Chair Erik Solheim says we can eradicate extreme poverty

OECD work on development

How the world reported PISA

Main findings on student perforamnce
Main findings on student performance

Much of the media coverage around PISA focused on the strong performance of Asia’s students. But regular followers of the OECD’s assessments of worldwide student performance had something else on their minds: where’s Finland?

They weren’t the only ones feeling troubled: “The golden days are over,” lamented Finnbay, a Finnish media outlet, as it reported that Finland, long a PISA poster-child, had “dropped from the top of the league.” Yle, the national broadcaster, even wondered if the country’s education system might be at risk of sharing “the fate of another fallen national champion – Nokia.” Numerous explanations were offered for the Nordic country’s performance, including that it may be a victim of its own PISA success.

“Some argue that complacency and focus on explaining the past to thousands of education tourists have shifted attention away from developing Finland’s own school system,” wrote Pasi Sahlberg, who works on education reform in Finland. In response, Finland’s education minister, Krista Kiuru, promised “strong action,” according to Finnbay. There was handwringing, too, across the border: “No other country has fallen so abruptly as Sweden in maths over a ten-year span,” announced TheLocal, a Swedish news outlet.

Tremors from the Nordic countries’ PISA showing were felt in the United Kingdom, where the Financial Times reported that the performance of the country’s students was “stagnating”. That, combined with the results of Finland and Sweden in PISA, put the education minister, Michael Gove, “under pressure to defend his Scandinavian-inspired education reforms,” according to the FT.  In response, it wrote, Mr Gove said “a ‘more rigorous system of accountability’ was also needed to make sure that poor performance did not go unchecked.”

As well as looking at national results, the media also examined PISA itself. In The Guardian, Mona Chalabi discussed “the basic claim of the assessment – that it is able to accurately capture the full range of students’ abilities and compare them across the world.” (You can find some FAQs about PISA’s methodology and approach here.) There was discussion, too, of the usefulness of international comparisons in education. Writing in a Washington Post blog before the PISA release, Valerie Strauss warned about the “fetishization of international test scores”. As The Economist noted, however, “critics will point out the rankings have imperfections. But it gives us a clue to how successful our classrooms are—and that is hard to ignore.”

Away from making international comparisons, PISA also looks into how factors outside the classroom affect student performance, most notably, perhaps, social background. The importance of some of these seemed to receive particular recognition in France, where Libération (in French) described the country as the “world champion in education inequalities”.

Writing on The Huffington Post, Jacques Attali, a leading economist and public intellectual in France, warned that the relatively weak performance of disadvantaged children in France’s schools posed an existential crisis for his country: “Unless this changes, millions of talented individuals … will be lost, and they will leave, frustrated, to go to other countries or underground. France will lose her soul in this. And her future.”

What about the “winners” – the Chinese city of Shanghai as well as OECD Members like Japan and Korea, among other Asian economies, that topped the PISA tables? While their achievements in education were widely recognized, there was concern, too, about the price being paid by the region’s hard-working students.

Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper noted that while Korean students performed well in PISA, the results also demonstrated that “they showed a lack of interest in the subjects.” This is sometimes attributed to the relentless pressure on Korean kids to succeed, which sees many follow an intensive eight-hour day in school with another three or four hours in an evening cram-school.

“For South Korean teenagers a double shift of school, every week day, is just a way of life,” the BBC’s Reeta Chakrabarti reported. But there are signs of a shift in attitudes, she added, quoting the country’s education minister, Seo Namsoo: “We still have a long way to go,” he said, “but we are doing some soul-searching in our society, and our goals now are about how to make our people happier.”

Useful links

PISA 2012

Asia’s students storm PISA 2012

Main findings on student perforamnce
Click for main findings on student performance

Students in Asia have topped the rankings in the latest round of the OECD’s PISA programme of international student assessment. The results, released this morning, show countries and economies in Asia grabbing seven of the top 10 slots in mathematics, the focus subject of the PISA 2012 round.

Students in the Chinese city of Shanghai continued their impressive showing from PISA 2009, taking first place not just in mathematics but also reading and science, the two other core subjects tested by PISA.

The strength of their performance in mathematics, especially, is striking: In effect, the city’s 15-year-olds scored the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above students in most OECD countries. Not only that, more than half of them – or around 55% – performed at the highest levels in maths, compared to an average in OECD countries of around one in eight students.

Of course, Shanghai is not China – a distinction that tends to get lost in coverage of the PISA results. The city is the wealthiest in China, and the life experience and education of its young residents are a long way removed of those of young Chinese in, say, rural areas. (That said, unpublished results from the PISA 2009 assessments in other parts of China showed a  “remarkable performance,” according to the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA.)

Shanghai’s students have also benefited from the city’s bold efforts to reform its schools. The result, according to The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, “is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools … These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.”

But while Shanghai should not be read as representative of China, its strong performance in maths is in line with that of many of the other Asian economies in PISA. Undoubtedly, some will turn to wider cultural explanations for this phenomenon. However, the impressive performance of Asian economies like Singapore and Korea across the range of subjects examined in PISA suggests other factors may be at work within education systems.

Chief among these, according to the OECD, is how these countries and economies approach teaching: “Top performers, notably in Asia, place great emphasis on selecting and training teachers, encourage them to work together and prioritise investment in teacher quality, not classroom sizes,” the organisation said in a press statement. “They also set clear targets and give teachers autonomy in the classroom to achieve them.”

Useful links

Today sees the release of a special data tool designed to let users explore the performance of individual countries as well as many of the key issues examined by PISA. These include how boys and girls do, the impact of social background, and the role of students’ self-belief and motivation.

Here’s a sampling of some of the ways in which you can explore PISA 2012.

  • Main findings, country-related content and video streams can be accessed at PISA 2012.
  • You can also find a useful overview (pdf) of the main results as well as a snapshot (pdf) of how countries performed.
  • On the Internet, there’s a Facebook page for parents and a special PISA Day website and, later on Tuesday, a webinar.
  • You can also follow PISA 2012 on Twitter.
  • And you can read Andreas Schleicher’s thoughts at the OECD educationtoday blog.
  • Full results and analysis from PISA 2012 are presented in the following reports (with more to come next year): Vol. I presents the main findings on student performance; Vol. II looks at issues of equity and fairness in education; Vol. III looks at student engagement and self-beliefs; and Vol. IV looks at the role of how schools are run and resourced. And there’s a special report on what the United States can learn from PISA.

But how would he do on PISA?

Here's the other one
Here’s the other one

We couldn’t resist this video by Aria Shahrokhshahi, a young British lad who’s been struggling with his sums.

“One year before this video I was at a grade F in maths,” Aria explained. “In England you need a C (pass) to basically do anything with your life. […] Neither me or my dad or my teachers thought I was going to get my C.”

But, as the video shows, Aria surprised everyone – especially his dad – by getting that C.

Soon, it won’t just be Mr Shahrokhshahi who’s getting excited about mathematics scores. For on Tuesday the OECD will release the latest round of results from its PISA programme of international student assessments, or, as the BBC calls it, “the world’s most important exam”.

This latest release of PISA results covers the most recent round of the three-yearly assessments, which took place in 2012. As usual, it covered three main topics – mathematics, reading and science. Also as usual, it placed a special focus on just one of these subjects – in 2012, it was mathematics. In total, more than half a million 15-year-old students took part in the assessments, representing 64 countries and economies.

So, what to watch out for this week? Given the media deluge that typically follows a new PISA release, it might be easier to talk about what you shouldn’t watch out for. Chief among these, perhaps, are the famous league tables, which “rank” the performances of students in each participating country and economy. These tend to receive the lion’s share of coverage, with lots of excitable talk about how one country’s students are three places higher than another’s. How does the OECD itself feel about these tables? “We don’t attach that much importance to them,” PISA’s Andreas Schleicher told The Guardian last week, “but people want to see comparisons.”

Of more interest, perhaps, is the broader picture of whether each country is above, around or below the average and whether its performance is improving or declining. And, of course, there will be usual data and analysis on a whole range of other issues that PISA investigates, such as how students from poorer families do compared to better-off kids, how girls do compared to boys and the importance of students’ attitudes.

If you want to follow the PISA launch, coverage begins at the PISA website tomorrow (3 Dec.) at 1000 GMT (that’s 5am in New York, 10am in London, 11am in Berlin and Paris and 7pm in Tokyo). If you’re following on Twitter, the hashtag is #OECDPISA. Later on Tuesday, you can join a “webinar” with Andreas Schleicher. You might also like to go along to PISA Day, a special website created by the Alliance for Excellent Education and partners. And, if you’re a parent, there’s a Facebook page that might interest you – www.facebook.com/oecdpisaforparents.

Useful links

OECD work on education

OECD educationtoday blog