Does homework work?

The baby ate it
The baby ate it

Julia Stockdale-Otárola, OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate

In 1988, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami took his camera into a primary school in Teheran and asked the kids a simple question: “Did you do your homework?” Of the many justifications for not doing it, the most reasonable was no doubt, “My baby sister keeps coming and biting my back”. Nobody claimed their parents stopped them from doing it though. Unlike Spain, where this month CEAPA, a confederation of 12 000 parents’ associations, called for a nationwide weekend homework strike.

Gracia Escalante, a mother of two and a social worker, explained some of the reasons behind the call: “My family will be on strike as a way of making more visible the view that the current system of homework in Spain is appallingly inefficient and socially divisive.”

Even some teachers support the strike. Alvaro Caso, who doesn’t assign any homework to his students, explains that he believes: “Children spend enough time at school and have enough work to do during the day. If a teacher is doing their job right, there is no need for any more – at least in primary education.”

Former acting Education Minister and now Government Spokesperson Iñigo Méndez de Vigo considers that the strike “is a bad idea“, although he added that this question “could be the subject of debate in the national education pact” that the government will “immediately set in motion in the Lower House of Parliament”. In the meantime, the regional governments of Madrid, the Canary Islands, and Murcia have approved recommendations to reduce homework time.

All sides in the debate quote data from the OECD PISA project that show that the Spanish 15-year olds spend more time on homework than most, at nearly 8 hours a week compared to an OECD average of nearly 6 (that’s less than half the time students in Shanghai spend).  Does it do any good? The PISA figures show that on average across OECD countries, for each hour per week students spend doing homework, they score 4.5 points higher in reading and mathematics and 4.3 points higher in science.

However, Spanish students are in the bottom half of PISA rankings, suggesting that spending more time doing homework doesn’t always translate into higher student achievement compared to other countries, although you could also argue that without homework the gap would be bigger. The discrepancy between efforts and results might be explained by what some argue to be the difference between homework versus “busywork”. That is to say that there is such a thing as good and bad quality homework and that there’s a point when children get to a point of oversaturation. Drawbacks of a heavy workload include boredom, burnout, increased stress, lack of sleep and less time for family and extracurricular activities.

Harris Cooper conducted a comprehensive analysis of the correlation between student achievement and homework. This study found a positive correlation, however it notes that this is much stronger at the high school level than in primary school.  Cooper suggests the 10-20 minute rule: every year no more than 10 minutes should be added to the time spent on homework. Following this approach, a child in the first grade would be assigned 10 minutes of homework, while a secondary student in year 9 would be assigned no more than 90 minutes of homework. The only problem with this approach is that not all children take the same amount of time on each assignment.

More generally, as you’d expect, the averages in all these studies hide a number of important differences, some of which are constant across countries and time. The conversations with Kiarostami gradually paint a fascinating picture not just of the pupils’ attitudes to education and child raising, but of family life and Iranian society at the time in general. It becomes clear that one of reasons for not doing homework was poverty – there was nowhere to study at home, or the parents were illiterate, so it was left to older brothers and sisters to give what help they could.

Today, poverty can still be a barrier to learning, whatever the country. An OECD study showed that this is the case even when all students, including the most disadvantaged, have easy access to the Internet. A digital divide, based on socio-economic status, still persists in how students use technology. Advantaged students are more likely than disadvantaged students to search for information or read news on line.

All things considered, it would seem that some homework is worthwhile, an “opportunity for learning” as PISA says, although it may also reinforce socio-economic disparities in student achievement. The OECD report gives some practical suggestions on how to help, such as providing a quiet place for disadvantaged students to complete their assignments if nowhere is available at home. If nothing else, that would maybe stop the baby biting her brother.

Useful links

More work? More play? What’s really best for high school students? Laura Capponi gives a student’s view on OECD Insights

Ten steps to equity in education

Happy Teachers’ Day: do teachers have reasons to celebrate?

classroom-finlandMontserrat Gomendio, Deputy Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Today we celebrate World Teachers’ Day. Who cares? According to most opinion polls, it matters to most people in most of our societies, since teachers consistently rank as high as doctors as the most trusted and valued occupations. They are regarded as altruistic and devoted to performing tasks which are very important for society.  It is also true that most of us still marvel at the huge impact that some of our teachers had on us: the journey of discovery that they invited us to join; the questions that we did not even imagine could be posed; the expectations that they had about what we were capable of doing even before we knew; the support they gave us when we felt lost; the craving for learning that we would never forget.

Given this widespread consensus on the impact that teachers have on our lives and those of our children, and on the huge influence that what and how we learn can have on the future of our societies, it is important to ask: How does it feel to be held in such high regard?

The OECD has asked teachers and has uncovered a sad reality: in most countries less than 50% of teachers feel valued by society, and in some the proportion is smaller than 10%. Not surprisingly, the exceptions are countries like Finland, Singapore or Korea, where the education systems place great emphasis on teacher quality, and teachers seem to be aware of the impact that they have on children’s future.

So why do teachers tend to feel that they are not valued by society, if they are? Let’s have a look at the evidence collected by the OECD. The first issue that is commonly raised is salaries, but this seems to be only part of the story. It is true that in countries with very low salaries, teachers do not feel valued and it is difficult to attract the best candidates to the profession. However, it is also the case that teachers in Finland earn less than teachers in Spain or the United States where few teachers feel valued.

Teaching careers, like many others, may be attractive not only because of the financial benefits, but also because of the intellectual stimulation that they provide. Thus, teachers that have high levels of self-efficacy (in other words, are proud about how they perform), tend to feel valued by society. What seems to matter most is whether teachers can engage in collaboration with other teachers, by providing feed-back to each other, can observe each other’s classes, and can exchange good practices. Feeling part of a team which thrives makes teachers feel more valued and more satisfied with their careers, than working in isolation and following a routine year after year.

These forms of collaborative professional development are important not only for the self-esteem of teachers. Today’s teachers need to remain learners throughout their careers, and become experts in the science of learning. Their success depends on their ability to discover new ways to improve students’ performance and to equip them with 21st Century skills.

Teachers have many reasons to celebrate: people trust them, they have the power to transform people’s lives, and new ways to support them in their professional development are being developed. Last but not least, the OECD has given them a voice so that we can understand better their concerns and what matters for the success of their work.

Useful links

Empowering teachers with high-quality professional development Fabian Barrera-Pedemonte, UCL Institute of Education and Thomas J. Alexander Fellow, on the OECD Educationtoday blog

TALIS -The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey

A closer look at gender gaps in education and beyond

PISA genderToday’s post is from OECD Deputy Secretary-General Stefan Kapferer

“In a world in search of growth, women will help find it, if they face a level playing field instead of an insidious conspiracy.” Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, didn’t mince words last week when she called for dismantling the legal barriers that prevent many women around the world from participating in their economies. She framed her argument in economic terms, saying that a previous study found that having as many women as men in the labour force could boost economic growth by 5% in the United States, 9% in Japan and 34% in Egypt.

A new PISA report, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence (pdf), shows that the barriers against women’s full participation in the work force are not necessarily written into law. They can be as seemingly innocuous as parents’ expectations for their daughter’s future or students’ beliefs in their own abilities.

For example, the report, released today, finds that less than 5% of 15-year-old girls in OECD countries contemplate pursuing a career in engineering or computing, while 20% of boys do. What accounts for this gender difference in career expectations? PISA finds that girls – even high-achieving girls – have less confidence in their abilities in mathematics and science, and are more anxious towards mathematics, than boys. On average across OECD countries, the difference in mathematics performance between high-achieving girls and boys is 19 PISA score points, the equivalent of around half a year of school. But when comparing boys and girls who reported similar levels of self-confidence in mathematics and of anxiety towards mathematics, the gender gap in performance disappears. If girls don’t believe in their aptitude for certain subjects, why would they continue to study those subjects when they are no longer required to?

The study also finds that, when required to “think like scientists” at school, girls underperform considerably compared to boys. For example, girls tend to underachieve compared to boys when they are asked to formulate situations mathematically. On average across OECD countries, boys outperform girls in this skill by around 16 PISA score points – the equivalent of nearly five months of school. Boys also outperform girls – by 15 score points – in the ability to apply their knowledge of science to a given situation. This gender difference in the ability to think like a scientist may be related to students’ self-confidence. When students are more self-confident, they give themselves the freedom to fail, to engage in the trial-and-error processes that are fundamental to acquiring knowledge in mathematics and science.

More worrying still is the fact that, in 2012, 14% of boys and 9% of girls did not attain the PISA baseline level of proficiency in any of the three core subjects measured in PISA – reading, mathematics and science. Why are boys more likely to be among the lowest achievers in school? The report finds that gender differences in school performance are linked to gender differences in student behaviour, both in and outside of school. For example, boys spend one hour less per week on homework than girls – and each hour of homework per week translates into a 4-point higher score in the PISA reading, mathematics and science tests. Outside of school, boys spend more time playing video games than girls and less time reading for enjoyment, particularly complex texts, like fiction. Reading proficiency is the foundation upon which all other learning is built; when boys don’t read well, their performance in other school subjects suffers too.

While the report makes clear that there are no innate gender differences in academic ability, it also shows that, unfortunately, there are also no gender gaps in how well – or badly – prepared 15-year-olds are to enter the working world or continue their studies after compulsory education. PISA shows that girls are more likely than boys to get information about future studies or careers through Internet research, while boys are more likely than girls to get hands-on experience by working as interns, job shadowing or visiting a job fair. But across the OECD countries that distributed a questionnaire about career expectations, almost one in four girls and one in five boys reported that they did not know how to search for a job. Some 43% of girls and 37% of boys reported that they had not mastered the skills needed to perform well at a job interview; and almost one in three boys and girls reported that they had not acquired the skills needed to write a CV or a summary of their qualifications.

So how can we dismantle some of these barriers to boys’ and girls’ personal fulfilment and to their full participation in their societies later on? The report emphasises that parents and teachers can become more aware of their own gender biases. For example, why is it that in all countries and economies surveyed about parents’ expectations for their children were parents more likely to expect their sons, rather than their daughters, to work in a STEM field – even when boys and girls perform equally well in mathematics and science? Why is it that teachers consistently give girls better marks, even when boys and girls perform similarly on the PISA test? And why aren’t employers seeking and welcoming equal numbers of girls and boys for internships or job shadowing?

As this report makes clear, we are all responsible for giving our children equal chances to succeed in school and in life. Not only does it make economic sense, it is simply the right thing to do.

Useful links

PISA in Focus N°49: What lies behind gender inequality in education?

Why boys and girls still don’t have an equal chance at school on the educationtoday blog

Try the PISA questions


Every child has special needs: “secrets” of Finnish education

Finland education outlookToday’s post is by Janet English. Janet was awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She holds a masters degree in education, and teaches in southern California.

In 2013 I moved to Finland on a Fulbright Award to learn the “secrets” of Finnish education. For the next six months I traveled by train, on bus, on bike and on foot to observe classrooms, document Finnish educational practice, and interview teachers, administrators and students. I began this journey to find out what makes Finnish students successful problem solvers in PISA, but along the way I learned much, much more. Finns have been combining high quality educational research with classroom practice for more than twenty-five years and they’ve designed an educational system to optimize learning for every child, regardless of a student’s educational needs. The rest of us need to be paying attention. There are many aspects of Finnish education that can and should be incorporated into schools systems abroad.

The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning is a free e-book that takes readers on this educational journey through Finnish schools. The “secrets” are revealed through in-depth storytelling, video interviews, and compelling images that illustrate the design and practice of the Finnish education system. Finnish teachers talk about the importance of taking time to optimize student learning, how they incorporate problem solving into almost every lesson, how the pace of teaching is determined by the rate of student learning, and how they approach student assessment. An administrator from the Finnish National Board of Education talks about educational design, Pasi Sahlberg from Harvard University discusses equity, and Andreas Schleicher from the OECD reflects on the need for education systems to evolve.

The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning is a valuable resource for anyone wanting to design an education system where all students have a chance to succeed and reach their full potential. The chapters are short, those interviewed are insightful, and the stories are sparking vibrant discussions about the policy and practice of education.

Last year I used these Finnish methods to teach conceptual biology to second language learners, those with significant learning challenges, and many who have struggled or have been unsuccessful in traditional American high schools. (Some of these classes were as large as thirty-eight students.) This year I’m using a blended Finnish/American approach to teach college preparatory biology to high achieving students and low achieving students. The learning results of both groups have been remarkably positive.

Ninety-four percent of the students I polled said this Finnish/American method of teaching is more intellectually stimulating than they’ve experienced in prior science classes. Six percent asked for more structure (by taking traditional vocabulary tests and answering multiple-choice questions) to help them feel like they are achieving in ways that are familiar with what they’ve done in the past.

One student told me, “This teaching style helps both high achieving and low achieving students achieve their best. We actually get to learn much more and we’re not limited by what’s in the textbook. It lets us go as far as we want to go. The teacher is not just a babysitter to make sure we learn what’s in the textbook.”

I hope that The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning (ages 3-18) will be useful for policymakers, teachers, teacher trainers, administrators, parents, and anyone whose goal is to optimize student learning.

Useful links

Finland featured in a video series produced by the Pearson Foundation profiling policies and practices of education systems that demonstrate high or improving performance in the PISA tests. See the video and other material from the OECD here.

Lessons in culture

Well done! Now go and overthrow the Qing dynasty
Well done! Now go and overthrow the Qing dynasty

Stroll through most cities and you’ll see memorials to all sorts of human achievement – from victory in war to brilliance in the lab. But how about success in an exam? Yes, even that has been commemorated. Tucked away in obscure corners of China, you can still sometimes find archways and stone tablets celebrating the fact that a local man once, a long time ago, passed the fiercely competitive Imperial Examination.

The reward for success was an appointment to the civil service, bringing with it prestige and, for many, great power. In theory, the exam – which endured, on and off, for 1,300 years – was open to almost any man in China. In practice, most of those who sat it came from well-off families. Generally, they were the only ones who could afford to subsidise a son until he was ready to sit the exam, by which time he was usually in his 30s.

Flash forward in time to 2009, more than a century after the last Imperial Examination: students in Shanghai face another test – the OECD’s PISA international student assessment. Just as with their predecessors’, their results are closely watched and – when they show the city’s students ranked first in the world – widely celebrated (although we haven’t heard of any statues being erected).

Is there a link between these stories of ancient and modern achievement? A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit offers grounds for thinking that there might be. The Learning Curve draws on research from PISA, and other international student assessments, to try to take the lid off “the black box” of education. To explain, we know what goes into education – funding, class size, teacher salaries, and so on – and we also have a pretty good idea of what comes out, in terms of student performance. But we still struggle to explain what happens between these “inputs” and “outputs”.

This is not a minor issue. Take spending: You might assume that countries that spend proportionally more get better results, but that’s not the case. Finland devotes 6.4% of its GDP to education, and its students regularly come first among OECD countries in PISA; France spends pretty much the same (6.3%), yet its students only hover around the OECD average. And this is not a rare example: As the EIU report states, in education “inputs are turned into outputs in ways that are difficult to predict or quantify exactly.”

So, clearly, other factors are at work, but what? Research in recent years has given us a much better sense of the importance of factors like how well schools deal with students’ from different social backgrounds. But, as the EIU report points out, there are other factors that we understand less well, including teacher quality, the role of school choice and autonomy and the ability of educational systems to identify the skills of the future. And, it says, there’s something else we need to think about – culture.

Which brings us back to China. The Imperial Examination can be criticised on many grounds, not least that it ignored science and experimentation. But it can surely be said to have underpinned a key idea in the culture of China and much of East Asia – one that can be traced back even further to Confucius: namely, if you want to succeed, you need to study.

The EIU report argues that the influence of the surrounding culture can’t be underestimated in determining how well education systems perform, and suggests it may be even more important than national wealth. In particular, it identifies culture as being key to the success of two PISA frontrunners – Finland and Korea. These two take very different approaches to education, but their cultures have at least one thing in common: a profound respect for teachers.

Indeed, the role of teachers has come to be increasingly recognised in recent years and, as The Learning Curve notes, several governments have sought to shift or buttress cultural attitudes to the profession by raising its prestige. This has included concrete action, such as setting starting salaries at the same level as other professions, and symbolic steps, such as Singapore’s creation of a National Teachers Day.

The issue is also receiving growing recognition on the international stage. For example, this week sees Amsterdam hosting the third annual Teacher Summit, with the involvement of the OECD. The conference will look at ways of raising the quality of teaching and evaluating how well teachers are doing. You can find out more at the conference website and follow the discussion on Twitter at #ISTP2013

Useful links

2013 International Summit on the Teaching Profession, 13-14 March 2013

OECD educationtoday blog

OECD Insights: Human Capital

Now do you see what we mean? OECD data visualization contest results

In his modestly entitled Diary of a Genius, Salvador Dali dismisses Alexander Calder’s mobiles by remarking that the least you can expect of a sculpture is that it doesn’t move. But, never one to be bothered by contradictions, he had a lot of respect for the “New Vision” of the ex-Bauhaus artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy who pioneered kinetic sculpture with his 1930 stage prop consisting of a light that projected the shadows of its moving parts. Budapest’s University of Art and Design is named in his honour, and one of its graduates, Krisztina Szucs, is the joint winner of the data visualization contest we announced last September.

If your view of data visualization is similar to that of Dali’s concerning Calder, go here. If not, click on the image below to see how Krisztina and Maté Cziner present the financial return on education, based on data from the 568 pages and 1.5 kilos of the OECD’s amusingly entitled Education at a Glance.


The judges were Simon Rogers, editor of the Guardian’s Datablog and Datastore; Charlene Manuel from; Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General; and Anthony Gooch, OECD Director of Public Affairs and Communications.

They chose Krisztina and Maté’s graph from over 30 entries because it “does a great job of breaking down the complex interplay between costs and returns into a form that is easy to compare”. And also because “instead of the many-country approach used by most entries, the project takes a detailed look at public vs. private and men vs. women for three selected countries (which you can change)”.

The judges also awarded an honorable mention to That’s Edu, by Carlo Zapponi, for its friendly design and intuitive interface.

Congratulations to the winners, and check out the other contestants too, to see what a hard job our judges had.

Useful links

OECD Education Data Portal

OECD work on education

OECD statistics

OECD educationtoday blog

NOTE: The animations don’t work on Internet Explorer 7 and earlier versions.

AHELO: Telling you what you need to know about higher education outcomes

Click to go to the AHELO website

Rankings of higher education institutions always grab the headlines, but they only include a small selection of the world’s colleges, and may not tell you what you’d like to know about what it’s like to study there.

We asked Karine Tremblay to tell us about AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes), an ambitious OECD project that could prove far more useful than simple league tables.

What is AHELO?

AHELO is the first attempt at measuring at international level what third-year undergraduate degree students have learned and are capable of doing. It will produce measures at institution or department level, not at national level, unlike other OECD studies such as PISA or PIAAC.

At this stage, we’re testing the feasibility of measuring learning outcomes in institutions in different countries, with different missions, languages and cultural backgrounds. In fact non-OECD countries make up nearly a third of the participants – Colombia, Egypt, Kuwait, Russia, and Saudi Arabia as observer.

We’re focusing to begin with on generic skills (the so-called 21st Century skills – critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving and written communication) and skills in economics and engineering.

When can we see the results?

We’ll be releasing the results of this feasibility study in 2012. These won’t be data products. The idea is to show that it’s possible to devise a set of test instruments applicable across a range of different institutions, cultures and languages and that the practical implementation of these tests is feasible.

We’ll provide feedback to the institutions who helped us with this part on how their students perform relative to international benchmarks if the data proves comparable across countries, but we won’t be going public with these results.

If a main study is launched, we would publish performance data on learning outcomes, along with context information to interpret performances – type and mission of institution, selectivity, characteristics of student intake, and so on.

How will you rank institutions?

We won’t. Current rankings like the Shanghai or Times Higher focus on inputs such as libraries or faculty characteristics and research performance, measured by numbers of citations, number of Nobel prizes, and the like. That’s fine if you’re picking a PhD programme for instance. For prospective undergraduates or employers though, it’s highly misleading to use such measures as proxies of higher education quality.

But in the absence of any better information, we see higher education institutions all over the world in a race to research excellence to make it to the top of the rankings, to the detriment of their teaching mission.

So, how is AHELO more useful than rankings?

AHELO data will allow a much more accurate assessment of higher education quality, focusing on one of the key missions of institutions: teaching. And in fact, thanks to the context data, it will be possible to analyse what is distinctive about high-performing institutions and spot best practices.

That makes it possible to identify what works, for which students and in which contexts. There is a huge potential for reducing dropout rates and enhancing more equitable outcomes. Remember that across the OECD, 3 out of 10 students entering higher education will drop out without a degree. With $53 000 spent per higher education student on average, the costs of failure are huge. The social costs for those dropping out are equally high.

Who will use AHELO results?

Anyone  interested in higher education. Students can make better informed decisions. Institutions can improve their teaching and learning processes. Governments can effectively account for public expenditure on tertiary education. Employers are better informed as to the capacities and capabilities job candidates.

Are you optimistic about progress so far?

Yes. All the insights from our work so far suggest that AHELO is feasible, and interest is growing steadily. We’ve reached our target of 15 participating countries in the feasibility study, and received expressions of interest from twice as many, which is very promising for a main study.

One reason for this is that we’ve tried to involve as wide a range of participants as possible. Governments, institutions and academics serve on our expert groups. Students are at the core of the feasibility study, and we consult stakeholders regularly to report on progress and seek their feedback.

Interest is particularly high in the MENA region as well as in Latin America. Egypt for example remains highly committed despite the political turmoil. We’re also pleased to have Colombia with its strong track record in national assessments of higher education.

How have teachers and students reacted?

One of the big surprises was that obtaining agreement on frameworks and instruments was easier than we expected – getting academics from different countries to agree on what to measure in the disciplines, and to agree on a test. We included economics to see if agreement was possible in a social science.

Students have taken the generic skills test in their own language and provided qualitative validation that the test is meaningful and relevant to them. Students are now validating the disciplinary assessments as well. Here, initial feedback suggests that the tasks stimulate students’ interest and desire to participate. 

What comes next?

AHELO seems feasible, and we’re moving to phase 2 with larger groups of students. The goal is to deepen our analyses and provide a quantitative proof of concept – demonstrate that practical implementation is feasible and that the tests yield relevant and statistically acceptable results.

Useful links

UNESCO Global Forum: Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses, Paris, 16-17 May 2011, organised with the OECD and World Bank, will address university rankings in light of their impact on policy and decision-making at institutional, national and regional levels.

OECD work on education