Progress in education

Studying the signs
Education Directorate

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Many headline economic indicators fluctuate day by day. With few exceptions, commentators judge the success or failure of economic policies in quarterly data or annual growth rates. It is harder to become excited about education in the same way, since both policy and indicators measuring performance inch forward at a much slower pace.

True, a headline on the performance of our children in reading or mathematics can cause people to sit up. But it may be 5 or 10 years, or even a generation, before policies to address these issues bear fruit. This is not surprising, when one considers that educational outcomes for students graduating from secondary school this year may be influenced by the teaching they received when they started school around 1990, possibly in classes where the teachers themselves had been trained in the 1960s.

Yet, considering public and private spending, education not only absorbs 5.9% of GDP in the OECD area, but is a key resource in today’s knowledge-driven society. So shouldn’t we monitor its performance more closely? The OECD has been responding to this by collecting reliable educational indicators for over a decade, using comparable data to make it possible to track some longer-term trends. Its annual compendium, Education at a Glance, the latest edition of which has just been published, confirms that, yes, things change slowly, but gives a clear indication of the direction of change.

Comparing some of the key data for 2000/2001 with indicators from 5 or 10 years earlier shows much that remains familiar. Take spending levels. Denmark and Sweden continue to spend the most public resources on their education systems, 6.4% and 6.3% of GDP respectively, compared with an OECD average of 4.8%. The United States remains close to average in public spending on education, but thanks to its significant private spending on tertiary education, its total education spending of 7% of GDP puts it near the top. Korea now leads the field, with 7.1%, again reflecting significant private spending on higher education. Japan is still a modest spender, with 4.6%, even when above-average private spending is taken into account.

The picture for enrolment levels has altered more. The 1993 edition of Education at a Glance showed that, in 1990, European countries on the whole had higher participation in early childhood education, but a smaller percentage going on to obtain university qualifications than in the United States, Canada or Australia. This pattern is changing. In particular, a number of European countries, including the United Kingdom and some Nordic countries, are now educating over a third of their young people to university level.

The effect of such shifts on the education level of the workforce is only gradual. For instance, an increase in the graduation rate among young people 10 years ago will have affected about a quarter of people presently of working age. Our first chart shows that, nevertheless, there has been considerable movement in some countries in the proportion of well-qualified young people. Tertiary attainment among 25 to 34-yearolds is increasing everywhere, but most markedly in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Ireland, Korea, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK, where double-digit growth since 1991 has helped them more or less to catch up with the United States. Germany and the UK each started the 1990s with about a fifth of their 25 to 34- year-olds being highly qualified; while this has not changed much in Germany, in the UK the proportion is now approaching a third. This suggests that Germany has had difficulty expanding access to higher education, though reform efforts now under way should alter the picture in years to come.

One key point is that these “tertiary” education data include not just full university degrees, but a range of lowerlevel diplomas as well. The latter are particularly common in Japan, helping to account for its high attainment rate.

In addition to the continued expansion of education systems, two other recent trends stand out. First, the 1990s was the decade when girls shot ahead of boys in terms of their educational attainment in many areas, and all but a few vestiges of male educational “superiority” disappeared. Young women are now more likely to graduate from university-level institutions in most OECD countries; there are only three countries where young men are significantly more likely to do so (Japan, Switzerland and Turkey). In the past, men typically had better access, and the 1993 edition of Education at a Glance shows that, in 1990, men still had higher universitylevel graduation rates than women in half the countries with comparable data. Nevertheless, there remain discrepancies in educational and career choices, with young men still favouring physics, mathematics and engineering-based courses at university, and young women opting for the social sciences, health and teachingrelated courses.

Girls were also better readers in every one of the 43 countries taking part in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of performance among 15-year-olds in 2000. In about half of the countries, boys remained ahead in mathematical literacy, but here the differences were smaller, and in science there were few significant differences. In 40 out of the 42 countries taking part in PISA, 15-year-old girls also reported higher expectation about their future occupations than boys. However, career expectations of boys were much more often associated with physics, mathematics or engineering while girls more frequently expected occupations related to life sciences and health, mirroring the picture of current graduation rates in tertiary education.

Second, the clearest way in which schools themselves look different today from a decade ago is the use they make of information and communication technology (ICT). In 1990, most upper secondary schools had yet to introduce basic computer systems; today, virtually every school has done so, with Internet and email coming on stream for most by the end of the decade.

However, the take-up of new technologies has been far from uniform, as this year’s Education at a Glance shows. Some countries, such as Finland and France, adopted ICT earlier, whereas countries like Italy, Korea and Spain did so much later. In general, the early countries are also those who today devote most resources to their ICT needs, although Korea, which started to invest only very recently, now has one of the highest ratios of computers per student in the OECD area (see graph).

Together, these indicators do not give a single answer to the perennial question: which education system is the best? But they do give policymakers a tool to identify areas for investment and improvement over time. Moreover, they yield ever more useful international benchmarks that help each country monitor its own progress against the performances of others, and so help to foster progress in our education systems.

Useful indicators in the years ahead will continue to be generated by the ongoing PISA enterprise. Every three years, PISA tests the knowledge and skills for life acquired by 15-year-olds as they approach the end of compulsory schooling. The results from the first tests in 2000 caused a stir in many countries. With the second round of assessment carried out this year to be reported in 2004, a first glimpse of progress over time – that is to say, not just of our children but of the effectiveness of government responses – will be possible.

But don’t hold your breath. Performance changes over a three-year period will probably be small. A country making changes to secondary education in response to the first PISA results published in 2001 might just be implementing them now, and will only see the effects on 15-year-olds within four or five years. So, expect the most telling findings to be published in about 2010. Is that too slow? Parents of eight-year-olds today probably won’t think so.


OECD (2003), Education at a Glance, Paris; visit 

OECD (2002), Reading for Change: Performance and Engagement across Countries, Paris.

OECD (2001), Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000, Paris.

OECD (1993), Education at a Glance, Paris.

Bulmahn, E. (2002), “PISA: The consequences for Germany”, in OECD Observer No 231/232, May 2002; available at

Hirsch, D. (2002), “How good is our global education? The PISA survey”, in OECD Observer No 230, January 2002; available at, or see link 5 at the bottom of this page.

©OECD Observer No 239, September 2003

Economic data

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