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.

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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

Children and Young People: Reading less but enjoying it as much

Endangered species?

Today’s post is by Christina Clark, Head of Research of the UK National Literacy Trust, whose latest report Children’s and Young People’s Reading Today has just been published

Young people’s lives are busier than ever before, with many activities and interests vying for their time outside of school. What role does reading play in this crowded lifestyle? Findings from our latest annual literacy survey of 21,000 8 to 16-year olds in the UK, published this month in our report Children and Young People’s Reading Today, suggest that reading plays an increasingly lesser role in young people’s leisure time, for example the frequency with which young people read. We found that only 30.8% of young people said that they read daily in their own time in 2011 compared with 38.1% in 2005. Conversely, more than a fifth of children and young people (21.6%) rarely or never read in their own time in 2011, up from 15.4% in 2005.

While fewer young people now read daily, we intriguingly also found that the proportion of children and young people who enjoy reading very much or quite a lot has remained static since 2005 (50% today vs 51% in 2005). These findings together suggest a clear issue with children and young people’s leisure time, with many children and young people enjoying reading but pushing it out in favour of other activities.

It isn’t the case that young people have shifted their reading patterns from paper to digital formats as a comparison of reading choices in 2005 and 2011 showed that, with the exception of text messages, reading across all formats, including technology-based reading, has fallen. For example, 77% of children and young people read magazines in 2005 while now just 57% do; comic reading has dropped from 64% to 50%; and reading on websites from 64% to 50%.

In line with numerous other studies, we also found that girls are more likely than boys to make time for reading, with 35.3% of girls saying that they read outside of class every day compared with 26.3% of boys (issues surrounding boys’ reading in the UK today are discussed here). However, our surveys – in line with OECD PISA international comparison data – show that the gap between boys and girls in terms of their daily reading has widened in recent years. For example, in 2005, 35% of boys and 42% of girls said that they read daily outside of class. 

Not only are girls more likely than boys to read daily, they are also more likely to enjoy it than boys. Nearly twice as many girls as boys say that they enjoy reading very much (27.6% vs. 18.3%), with 56.7% of girls enjoying reading either very much or quite a lot compared with only 43.8% of boys. Conversely, nearly twice as many boys as girls say that they don’t enjoy reading at all (14.6% vs. 8.3%).

The gender gap in reading enjoyment is not just a UK phenomenon; instead, it is corroborated by numerous studies that all show that boys enjoy reading less than girls. For example, PISA showed that across OECD countries, just over half of 15-year-old boys (52%) said that they read for enjoyment compared with nearly three-quarters of girls (73%). However, the gender difference remains wider in 2011 than in 2005 (where the percentage point gap between boys and girls who enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot was 10.7). The PISA question is a combined reading enjoyment and reading frequency question, which might account for the different proportions of boys and girls who say that they enjoy reading compared with our survey.

Girls and boys also read different materials outside of class. More girls than boys say that they not only read technology-based formats, such as text messages, messages on social networking sites, emails and instant messages, but also that they read more “traditional” texts, such as fiction and poems as well as magazines and lyrics. By contrast, more boys than girls say that they read non-fiction, newspapers, comics and manuals. Girls’ penchant for technology-based materials is not simply explained by girls having greater access to computers or the internet than boys. Our survey also showed that roughly the same proportion of boys and girls say that they either own a computer (boys 72.1%; girls 74.0%), have access to one (boys 96.4%; girls 97.0%) or have the internet at home (boys 96.3%; girls 96.3%).

One other area that we would like to highlight here relates to ethnic background. We compared data on broad ethnic groups and found that the relationships between reading and ethnic background are complex. For example, young people from White backgrounds enjoy reading considerably less (White 49.4%; Mixed race 56.8%; Asian/Asian British 58.2%; Black/Black British 60.7%), and read daily less often (White 30.7%; Mixed race 34.2%; Asian/Asian British 32.6%; Black/Black British 38.3%). They are also less likely to agree that reading is “cool” (White 31.9%; Mixed race 37.7%; Asian/Asian British 44.1%; Black/Black British 47.4%). They are more likely to agree that they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them read (White 17.7%; Mixed race 15.6%; Asian/Asian British 13%; Black/Black British 12.3%). Young people from White backgrounds are also more likely to agree that they prefer watching TV to reading (White 54.5%; Mixed race 50.3%; Asian/Asian British 46.8%; Black/Black British 50.7%).

We believe it is essential to make the time for children and young people to read as the research also shows a clear link between reading outside of class and their achievement. It found that young people who read outside of class daily were 13 times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.

We hope this research will increase interest in children’s and young people’s reading habits and encourage government, families and those working with children and young people to help make reading part of a young person’s daily activities. To find out more about our research and the activities we undertake to address literacy issues in the UK and how you could become involved, see our website 

Useful links

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

PISA – Let’s Read Them a Story! The Parent Factor in Education

The American Library in Paris is organising a discussion on 25 September at 19:30 with the author of Let’s Read Them a Story, Francesca Borgonovi, and Peter Gumbel, author of On achève bien les ecoliers, to learn more about the book and what you can concretely do to help your children in school and beyond.

Let’s read them a story! Helping your children succeed in school

“Reading is neither a mother’s nor a father’s job; it should be a joy to both”

Today’s post is from Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” said Mark Twain. Well, watching a film like Race to Nowhere makes you think Twain was right. The film describes schools miserably unable to prepare young Americans to become “healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens”.

What went wrong? The schools portrayed are obsessed by success, but ironically they fail students. The pressure is such that the students’ only aim is to pass exams. Students are caught aboard a runaway train and use any means available to cope with the madness of the system. These include cheating, taking stimulants and tranquilisers, or even inflicting harm upon themselves. They don’t learn but merely memorize, regurgitate and forget. A student sighed with relief after her final exam: “Phew… I’ll never have to speak French again!”.

The audience with whom I saw this documentary at the American University of Paris was shocked. These parents, teachers and school leaders felt that the film mirrored their own experience, in France and elsewhere. Too much stress, not enough learning. Although the film dealt with the upper 2% of the American education system (so-called “elite schools”), the uneasiness it captured was apparently felt by many.

Shouldn’t education help us live and work in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world? The film’s drained (rather than trained) students finally arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. Some have to take remedial classes when they enter college. A lawyer observed that the recent interns and new employees in her firm did not try to understand what the issues were and how to tackle them. Their only question was: “How many paragraphs should I write?”.

This is hardly the 21st century skill set education is supposed to deliver: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration. Through creativity (which comes first), we hope to find brand new ways of addressing economic, societal and personal problems. Schools should nurture creativity and innovation – and not just in the Arts. However, according to Ken Robinson: “our approaches to education are stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the 21st century – the powers of creative thinking”.

How schools can adapt to the 21st century is a crucial and complex issue, dealt with in an outstanding OECD publication: Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century. However, education does not only happen in the classroom. It starts – and continues – at home.

How can parents help their children succeed in school? How can they best help them acquire 21st century skills? Let’s Read them a Story: The Parent Factor in Education is based on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results and it shows that our involvement as parents is essential for children throughout their school years and beyond.

This attractive little book (which features exquisite New Yorker cartoons) will reassure parents: it is never too early and never too late to get involved in your children’s education. And it does not take a PhD to help your children succeed. Simple things go a long way, genuine interest is all it takes (quality rather than quantity). Show them you care, get involved!

First, let’s read them a story! Children who were read to when very young are better readers at fifteen (even compared to children with similar socio-economic backgrounds). As children enter primary school, some activities will help them become better (and happier) readers: activities that emphasize the value of reading and using words in context (e.g. reading books, talking about what mum/dad has done) rather than activities that treat words and letters as isolated units (e.g. playing with alphabet toys). Set an example by reading yourself – be it novels, newspapers or magazines. Volunteer for extra-curricular activities or at the library. And… eat meals with your children around a table.

Students are never too old to benefit from your engagement as a parent. “Fifteen-year-olds whose parents show an active interest in their lives and thoughts are more proficient in reading.” Discuss how well your children are doing at school or just spend time talking with them. Engage in debates about current affairs, books, films, etc. PISA data shows that students whose parents discuss social and political issues with them perform better than students whose parents do not. This also helps raise their awareness of effective learning strategies, e.g. how to summarise information. Last but not least, these discussions encourage students to develop informed opinions and become critical thinkers.

Children whose parents are involved in their education in these ways tend to be “more receptive to language”. They are also more likely to plan, set goals, initiate and follow-through in their projects. Having acquired these skills, they have learned something essential: how to learn – at school and well beyond.

Learning how to learn is key, and so is the joy that goes with it. What was striking in Race to Nowhere was the students’ utter absence of enjoyment. Don’t children need to play, explore and discover? The great pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott believed that playing serves as the basis for creativity and the discovery of the self and was the key to emotional and psychological well-being. He described all human culture (not only the arts, but also politics, economics, philosophy and culture) as highly developed forms of playing. Yet he warned: playing cannot happen when a person feels acute pressure to perform and it cannot involve too much anxiety. Feeling alive and real in one’s mind and body is what allows people to be close to others and creative. Let’s not lose this on the way as we rush ahead regardless.

Useful links

Read Marilyn Achiron’s article on “The Parent Factor in Education” at the OECD educationtoday blog

On 25th  September, the American Library in Paris is organizing an evening with Francesca Borgonovi of the OECD PISA programme and author and journalist Peter Gumbel whose latest book On achève bien les écoliers (“They shoot schoolkids, don’t they?”) looks at the French education system.