Education: Raising ambitions

Director, OECD Education Directorate

©André Faber

Quantity, quality, equity and ambition are the four broad challenges facing education in OECD countries today. Here is why.

Every eight seconds, one student in the OECD area leaves school without completing an upper secondary qualification. That means a gloomy outlook for his or her future: on average, 26% of adults without upper secondary qualifications earn half or less than half the national median earnings. The trouble is, the penalties for not obtaining strong baseline qualifications continue to rise year after year.

Educational systems in many OECD countries need to make considerable headway if they are to meet the demands of modern society. For this to happen, students, parents and teachers have to set more ambitious goals, systems must become more flexible, less class-biased and more open to international benchmarking, and funding procedures need to be overhauled. OECD studies and education indicators, as reflected in this year’s edition of Education at a Glance, underline these conclusions.

Technology has played a key role in economic and social development over the last few decades. It has transformed industrial production and boosted organisational improvements through innovations such as the Internet. All of this has been underpinned by massive investments in information and communications technology, particularly during the 1990s. However, educational progress is equally important to technological development, both because knowledge workers and innovators require high levels of education, and because a highly educated workforce is essential for the adoption of new technologies.

For example, the economic success of the US derives in part from its predominant position during former decades in producing large numbers of people with good basic qualifications. OECD indicators show that many caught up with the US in this respect in the 1980s, and eventually overtook it. More recently, countries such as China, India and Korea have rapidly expanded the supply of people with high-level qualifications.

As far as Europe is concerned, there are wide disparities in the growth of university-level education in most of the continent’s major economies. France, Italy and the UK have just held their ground, and Germany has fallen behind.

Against the above background, both Europe and the US now find themselves increasingly outperformed in education by countries in east Asia. Partly as a result of these educational trends, OECD members are no longer competing essentially with new countries offering low skills at low costs. Today, countries such as China and India are starting to deliver high skills at moderate cost and at an ever increasing pace. Indeed, the biggest challenge may lie in the area of competition for advanced skills.

In the past, countries such as China and India could not provide adequate jobs for their own talent, and many well-qualified people from this region left to work in the US and Europe. This pattern is now changing rapidly in line with technology, and countries that once exported talent now increasingly provide highly-skilled work at home. OECD countries cannot switch off the pressures that result from these developments unless they are prepared to incur great detriment to their own economic well-being.

OECD countries face four broad challenges in their efforts to make the necessary changes in educational systems and structures. These relate to quantity, quality, equity and ambition in education.

Korea provides one significant instance of meeting the quantity challenge. Just two generations ago, it had the standard of living of Afghanistan today, and it was among the lowest performers in education among OECD countries. Today, 97% of all 25 to 34-year-olds in Korea have completed upper-secondary education, the highest rate in the OECD.

Many factors helped Korea do better than other countries that started from a low base. Perhaps most importantly, society and educators in Korea never accepted the systemic and structural barriers that have hindered learning and reinforced inequities in many other countries. When demand for education began to outpace supply, students were not sent home. Instead, class size and schooling hours were extended and parents were ready to complement public provision with high levels of private investment in learning.

At the same time, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) now makes it possible to compare the quality of educational outcomes in the principal industrialised countries. The latest PISA assessment (2003) focused on the capacity of students to analyse, reason and communicate effectively. The assessment showed that 15-year-olds in the US and most of Europe’s large economies only performed around or below the OECD average. In contrast, the six east Asian education systems that took part in PISA 2003 were among the top ten performers.

The OECD indicators suggest a need for more ambition in many OECD countries to overcome poor educational outcomes and aspirations. By contrast, in Japan, Korea or Hong Kong-China, students, parents and teachers, whatever their socio-economic context, invest their time and resources in achieving the best possible results in school and university. A recent survey carried out in China also suggests that 15-year-old students there spent an average of nearly 3,000 hours in learning activities in 2002–in school, extra tutoring classes or preparing homework–nearly twice as much as their peers of OECD countries.

In addition, PISA asked 15-year-old students about their own expectations for their educational future. The available data show that 15-year-old students in all Asian countries have high aspirations, with about 60 to 70% of them expecting to attain tertiary level education in Japan, Hong Kong-China, Macao-China and Thailand. Tertiary expectations even reach 95% of 15-year-old students in Korea. In stark contrast, the level of tertiary aspirations is low among European students, with only half of them expecting to obtain a tertiary qualification during their lifetime.

Many education systems make laudable claims when it comes to securing equity in learning opportunities. However, PISA reveals that social background plays an even larger role in determining a student’s performance in countries such as Germany, France and Italy than in the US, and that in both Europe and the US socio-economic inequalities are larger than in any of the Asian countries for which comparable data are available. Students from difficult socio-economic backgrounds do not receive the same educational opportunities as children from middle and upper-class families.

In contrast, Finland and Canada, as well as five out of the six east and southeast Asian countries for which PISA data are available, are among the countries in which social background has the smallest impact on student success. The data also show that overall variation in student performance, performance differences between schools and the social clustering of school performance, tend to be greater in countries with rigid stratification practices at early ages between types of programme and school. The variation is less marked in systems in which the curriculum does not vary much between schools.

However, the highly competitive nature of east Asian education systems combined with exceedingly high expectations of teachers are reflected in extraordinary pressure on students and generally high levels of anxiety among them. For instance, all the east Asian countries that took part in the PISA 2003 assessment reported levels of helplessness and emotional stress among mathematics students that were well above OECD average levels. Education is partly about acquiring knowledge and skills. But it also needs to show students how to enjoy learning, especially in a world where learning must increasingly be a lifelong experience.

Note: This article is adapted from the editorial of Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2006. The full 450-page report is packed with data and analysis on performance, output, financial issues, access and the learning environment. It can be found at,
ISBN 92-64-02531-6.

See also “If at first you don’t succeed” and “Foreign talent”, OECD Observer No 257, October 2006

©OECD Observer No 257, October 2006

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