PISA quiz: How much do you know about what we know about science education?

pisa-2015Knowledge is already one of the main drivers of today’s economic system. In the future those nations, regions, and even local areas that succeed best will be those capable of capturing the benefits of scientific and technical innovations and transforming them into marketable goods and services in the face of global competition.  But an understanding of science and technology is necessary not only for those whose livelihood depends on it directly, but also for any citizen who wishes to make informed choices about issues ranging from stem cell research to global warming to genetically modified organisms to teaching the theory of evolution in schools. And new issues are bound to emerge in the years to come. The education system is vital to this, training the scientists, engineers and technicians who constitute the “human capital” of an increasingly fast changing, knowledge-intensive economy, and teaching students how to think about science.

Science literacy is the focus of the latest PISA round, based on data collected in 2015 from around 540,000 students in 74 countries and economies. PISA defines science literacy as “the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen. A scientifically literate person is willing to engage in reasoned discourse about science and technology, which requires the competencies to explain phenomena scientifically, evaluate and design scientific enquiry, and interpret data and evidence scientifically”.

How much has changed since the last science-focused round in 2006 and how much do you know about what we know about science in schools? Take the quiz and find out. You can find some of the answers on the interactive infographic below.



Lessons for France from PISA 2015

pisa-2015Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa. A French version is available here

Fifteen years ago, the OECD started evaluating education systems worldwide by testing the knowledge and competences of 15 year-old students through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Right from very first PISA exercise in 2000, we noted that the although the results for France were around the OECD average, they revealed a system where children’s socio-economic status had a disproportionate influence on their school grades, and where children from disadvantaged backgrounds did not receive enough support.

The OECD PISA 2015 results are now in. Even if France’s performance hasn’t deteriorated since the last series in 2012, it has not improved much compared to previous rounds either. France’s results for science and mathematics are around the OECD average, while reading comprehension is slightly above average.

Nonetheless, the French system is still markedly two-tier. The number of high-achieving students is stable and higher than the OECD average, but lower levels are not improving, with a proportion of 15 year-olds in difficulty in science higher than the OECD average.

According to PISA 2015, students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have four times less chance of succeeding than the others. This is not only a human tragedy. It is also a brake on economic development, which can only be solid and sustainable when it is inclusive.

Reconciling educational excellence and success for all is not just the best way to tackle social inequalities at the root, but also to obtain good results.

Results from around the globe illustrate various best practices applied to improve the equity and performance of the education system. Portugal’s TEIP programme for example (Priority Intervention Education Territories) targets investment in geographical regions where the population is socially disadvantaged and where school drop-out rates are higher than the national average. Singapore, first in the PISA science rankings, has a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that includes in particular the contribution to students’ personal and academic development, as well as the quality of parent-teacher relations.

In short, the capacity of a system to help students in difficulty and those from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve raises the general quality of the system and thus its overall performance.

In France however, investments in education do not always reach these groups. I had some personal experience of this malfunctioning when I arrived in France and asked people to recommend primary schools for my own children. The answer was: “Don’t pick a school, pick a neighbourhood”.

How can we ensure that success at school isn’t the result of a postcode lottery? France has already implemented reforms going in the right direction.

As recommended by the OECD, more resources, teachers, scholarships and support have been made available for disadvantaged students. The July 2003 Education Act (Loi d’orientation et de programmation pour la refondation de l’école de la République du 8 juillet 2013) designed to tackle school drop-out and failure from the earliest age marks an important step. The recent implementation of numerous reforms inspired by the Act at primary and junior high levels, could, depending on their practical application, respond to certain ongoing challenges and help to improve students’ learning and outcomes.

Of course it is too early to see any impact of these reforms on PISA 2015 scores. However, they were necessary and should be strengthened and evaluated regularly.

In France, as elsewhere in the past, teachers will play a key role in the reforms and will have to take ownership of the main objectives. Reform of teacher training should therefore be continued and made a priority.

It is important to stress that contrary to a commonly-held belief in France, the PISA 2015 results do not show that reforms designed to reduce social and educational inequalities result in a lowering of the overall level. On the contrary. In countries that carried out such reforms, the number of students failing dropped in the following decade, while the good students got even better. OECD countries that have managed to achieve high performance in science along with equity in terms of educational outcomes include Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Korea, Norway, and the UK according to PISA 2015.

We chose science as the focus of PISA 2015 because a good understanding of science and the technologies derived from it is indispensable, especially in our age of digital revolution. This is not only a necessity for those whose career depends directly on science, but for every citizen who wants to take an enlightened position on any number of questions facing society today, from health to sustainable development or climate change. Today, everyone should be able to “think like a scientist”.

More generally, education is fundamental in these troubled times, when populism is on the rise, when France has been shaken by several terrorist attacks, and social inequalities in the world have left by the wayside a number of citizens who no longer have any trust in institutions.

More than ever, we have to invest in our children’s science education, to respond to the “post-fact” era with an open and informed dialogue. More than ever, we have to strengthen our education systems to face up to the challenges that threaten increasingly to divide us.

PowerPoint Presentation to accompany this article (in French)

Useful links

Running in the Middle of the Pack: Judging Progress in Educational Achievement

Where's the quarterback?
Where’s the quarterback?

Jeremy Simon, Harvard Graduate School of Education

In the United States we treat education like it is a sport. And thanks to the PISA, an international test administered to 15 year olds around the world which produces a ranking of countries’ achievement in math, science, and reading every three years, we know who is winning. But winning isn’t all that is important in education. For that we need to consider how education is more like running a marathon and less like the Super Bowl.

There is only one Super Bowl winner every year. But education has more in common with a marathon, not a tournament. While it is true all runners would like to be the first ones across the finish line, an appeal of marathon running is that each racer is competing not only against her or his fellow runners but also themselves. They are striving to set a new personal best and see how their new training regimen paid off from last time, all while racing not only one another but the clock as well.

Education is a marathon and PISA is the race. Every three years there will only be one PISA “winner”, but dozens of countries will have the opportunity to see if they improved, regressed, or stayed the same.

If the goal of every runner in a marathon was to win then there would be hundreds of losers in every event. Similarly, if every country only focused on where they ranked in the PISA, the test would produce dozens of losers. But if we focus on the PISA score and not the ranking, much like a runner might examine her time and not her place, we can understand how the PISA is invaluable for evaluating if a country is getting better or worse at educating its children.

A marathon runner races themselves and the other runners. Even when victory is impossible, a marathoner can still cross the finish line and immediately know if the hard work they had put into training for the race had paid off with an improved time. Similarly, countries can use the PISA to measure their progress and determine how effective their attempts to improve have been.

For example, the United States can use its PISA score to see how consistently we have performed in reading. In the initial PISA test the U.S. scored a 504 in reading. Twelve years later we regressed slightly, scoring 498. This tells us that U.S. reading performance didn’t improve during that time. But the rankings tell a different story. In 2000 the U.S. ranked 16th in the world in reading. By 2012 we had dropped to 24th.

Click on the graph title for more display options and information

If the United States were obsessed with PISA rankings these results would be a disheartening trend. However, by using PISA scores and not rankings, the U.S. can at least understand that we have stagnated, not fallen, in reading scores.

Admittedly a plateau in progress isn’t an achievement worth celebrating. But knowing that as a country we haven’t gotten worse but other countries have gotten better is critical information for U.S. educators and policy makers. When competing in education, the U.S. should be thankful the PISA is a marathon and not the Super Bowl.

Useful links

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

OECD education working papers

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.

Are today’s students prepared for the knowledge economy of the 21st century?

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems in some 70 countries that, together, make up 90% of the world economy. By testing between 4 500 and 10 000 15-year-old students in each country, OECD PISA provides an internationally standardised assessment and has become a powerful tool for countries wanting to improve their education systems. Four assessments have been carried out since 2000.

Teachers matter

It’s hard to overstate the importance of teachers. Strip away the other things that determine how well students do – such as social background and individual capacity – and you’re pretty much left with teaching as the major factor that can be shaped by education policy.

Unfortunately, in the past teachers were often thought of in terms of quantity not quality – it didn’t matter what they were like so long as you had enough of them. That attitude is changing. In part that’s a response to student assessments like the OECD’s PISA . It has shown that differences in how well students do are often greater within schools than between schools. In the U.S., research suggests students with the strongest teachers can be a full year ahead of those learning under the weakest teachers.

But what makes a teacher good? Two recent articles offer some interesting ideas. In The New York Times, Elizabeth Green reports on a couple of interesting approaches, including the Lemov Taxonomy. This emphasises the need for teachers to capture students’ attention and then get them to follow instructions. That may sound like a call for a return to old-style classroom discipline, but in fact it mostly comes down to better classroom management and simple techniques.

An example: When Doug Lemov, creator of the taxonomy, was carrying out his research, “he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. ‘Stand still when you’re giving directions,’ a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.”

In The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley reports on Teach for America , a non-profit organisation that hires college graduates for two years to teach in poorer neighbourhoods. With more than 7,000 teachers on its books, the group has a large pool of research to work from. It has come up with a number of findings on what makes teachers effective. Firstly, it found they were ambitious – they set big goals for their students and constantly reexamined their own approaches to try to make them better.

Strong teachers shared four other tendencies, adds Ripley: “They avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully – for the next day or the year ahead – by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.”

Useful links

OECD Insights: Human Capital

OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)

OECD work on attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers

OECD work on evaluating and rewarding teachers

educationtoday – including the OECD education blog

The cost of bad education

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