Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Doctorate degree holders take research skills outside academia

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

The doctorate degree, or PhD, is the highest qualification included in the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED, level 8 in the ISCED 2011). It is also  unique because it bridges education with scientific research and innovation. Although the number of professional doctorates is increasing, in most cases they are qualifications acquired after several years of research leading to an original contribution to the scientific evidence base. The qualification rewards deep knowledge of  a specific field of research and mastery of research methodologies. It acknowledges the doctorate holder as a member of the scientific community and grants access to academia.

In recent years the doctorate degree has been the focus of policy initiatives, both from the higher education policy field and the policy field of science and research. Many countries have tried to radically increase the numbers of doctorates in recent years. Bursary schemes, grants and various support systems, both for individual students and for universities and research institutions, have been developed to attract more students into doctoral programmes. These policies have been very successful. The latest Education Indicators in Focus issue, based on data published in Education at a Glance 2014,  notes that between 2000 and 2012 the graduation rate among doctoral students has increased by 60% on average  across OECD countries, from 1.0% to 1.6%. That’s probably the largest increase ever observed in any qualification level in such a short period of time !

Obviously, there are huge differences among countries, both with regard to the current graduation rate and to the speed of increase since 2000, as is evident from the chart above. Ambitious countries, such as Switzerland, Sweden and Germany, have expanded doctoral programmes as part of their efforts to rapidly improve their relative position in the science and research  fields and in global university rankings. They take the lead, with graduation rates of 3.3%, 2.8% and 2.7%, respectively.    The  largest relative increases in  graduation rates among doctoral students since 2000 are found in the Slovak Republic (330% increase), Greece (420% increase, but starting from a much lower base), Denmark, Norway and Ireland.

A large and growing production of PhDs certainly contributes to the creation of new research evidence and a country’s research output. But, apart from the scientific outcomes of doctoral research, what does a doctoral degree actually contribute to the degree holder and the wider society? Surely the academic system itself – especially in an age of economic crisis and austerity – is not expanding at an equivalent rate, so employment opportunities for  PhDs in academia are limited. Many countries try to increase the return on the huge investments made in doctoral programmes, by offering more opportunities at the post-doctoral level; but despite those attempts, the prospects of successfully pursuing an academic career is not bright.

This tension between a larger number of doctoral degrees and limited employment opportunities in academic and research institutions, has triggered a debate on the purpose and utility of this qualification. Governments have developed policies to widen the scope of the doctoral degree, by including various skills sets useful for future employment in other parts of the public and private sectors, so that a  doctorate does not prepare a student exclusively for a research career. More frequently now, PhDs leave universities and research institutions to join research labs in private companies, public administrations and non-research jobs in various organisations. Some doctorate holders may regard this as a second-choice option, as research training often evolves into a university career.  At the societal level, however, an increase of highly-skilled workers with research skills can be regarded as beneficial, even if some would see it as a form of qualifications inflation and/or a threat to lower-qualified workers.

The data provided in the EDIF brief show that the employment opportunities for doctorate degree holders, outside research institutions, are very good. On average across OECD countries, the employment rate for PhDs reaches 91%, compared with 85% for bachelor’s and master’s degree holders. And, even more interesting, their employment rates in the private sector and government agencies are very significant in a number of countries. No longer are doctorate degrees simply entry tickets to the guild of university professors. Society at large increasingly benefits from the research skills and experience that these people have acquired.

Education Indicators in Focus, Issue No. 25, by Eric Charbonnier, Joris Ranchin and Laudeline Auriol
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators:
Photo credit: ©OECD

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Maths education for innovative societies

by Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin
Senior Analyst and Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skills

Mathematics is at the core of science, engineering and technology. Mathematic modelling of various phenomena underpins technology innovation. No wonder that mathematics education has always ranked high on the innovation policy agenda.

There is now ample evidence that preparing students for an innovative society goes well beyond preparing them for science-related professions. Given that a large share of professionals contributes in some way to innovation, the new educational imperative is to equip a critical mass of workers and citizens with the skills to thrive in innovative societies.

How can education systems meet this demand through mathematics education? First, they should improve students’ technical skills in mathematics. By technical skills, I mean the know-what (for example, the theorems) and the know-how (for example, the procedures to solve different types of problems). The 2012 results of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that many countries still have room for improvement. They also reveal that too many students still perceive mathematics as an educational stumbling block.

How could one possibly improve the learning outcomes in mathematics that are traditionally tested and, at the same time, develop other important skills for innovation, such as reasoning, understanding, posing (rather than just solving) problems, self-confidence, and even communication skills?

This is precisely the question that Zemira Mevarech and Bracha Kramarski address in a new OECD report entitled Critical Maths for Innovative Societies. Strong experimental and quasi-experimental research evidence points to one solution that teachers could easily adopt more systematically in their teaching: the explicit teaching of metacognitive strategies.

Meta-what? Let’s not be intimidated by scientific language. Metacognition simply means “thinking about” or “regulating” one’s thinking. While one often thinks about one’s thinking when learning, metacognitive pedagogies make students develop explicit (rather than implicit) learning and problem-solving strategies by making them systematically go through a series of questions about their learning.

Initiated by the Hungarian mathematician George Polya, these strategies have had several developers and promoters. For example, the teaching method developed by Mevarech and Kramarski, called IMPROVE, asks students to answer four types of questions when exposed to new content knowledge or when solving a problem: comprehension questions (e.g. what is the problem about?); connection questions (e.g. how does this problem relate to problems I have already solved? Please explain your reasoning); strategic questions (e.g. what kinds of strategies are appropriate for solving the problem, and why? Please explain your reasoning), and reflection questions (e.g. does the solution make sense? can the problem be solved in a different way?). These questions and their related processes then gradually become a habit of mind. Rigorous research shows that using this pedagogy, and others like it,  yields positive results on a variety of outcomes and skills that matter in innovative societies.

First, compared to traditional pedagogies, these methods lead to better learning outcomes in arithmetic, algebra and geometry, and their effectiveness increases in co-operative learning settings and when they also address learners’ emotional responses.

Second, they do not enhance only traditional learning outcomes, but also other skills for innovation. Metacognitive pedagogies help students to articulate their thinking, actively use the “mathematics language”, be more curious as they relate their learning to their interests, provide elaborated explanations, and also be involved in conflict resolutions and mutual learning. Students thus become better at mathematical reasoning, and better at regulating their emotions when confronted with mathematical problems. Students who have been taught using these pedagogies show less anxiety towards mathematics, for example.

Metacognitive pedagogies work for students in primary, secondary and tertiary education, as well as in teacher training; and some longitudinal studies show that they have a lasting effect and lead to much better retention of knowledge.

A noteworthy finding for policy makers is that metacognitive strategies are effective both for traditional and for complex, unfamiliar and non-routine math problems. Because they can be more authentic, more open, and more related to real life, these kinds of problems may arguably better prepare students to exert their creative and critical minds. An example of such a problem is the following: “several supermarkets advertised that they are the cheapest supermarket in town. Please collect information and find out which of the advertisements is correct.” Students then have to design and implement a strategy to come up with a reasoned answer. These kinds of problems may have several solutions, depending on how students interpret the problem: the students may go for a different basket of goods, or take into account qualitative differences in a different way – as we do in real life.

Some mathematics educators believe that complex, unfamiliar and non-routine problems are not “real maths” problems; but the good news is that, whatever the type of problem they prefer, metacognitive strategies will still improve their students’ learning outcomes.

Would metacognitive pedagogies have positive effects if mainstreamed in mathematics education (and possibly other disciplines)? Singapore is the only country where metacognitive strategies are now one explicit dimension of the mathematics curriculum. That means they are taught in teacher training and teachers are obliged to use them. This might partly explain why Singapore is consistently one of the top performers in mathematics, in both the PISA and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests.

Many educators and policy makers call for more evidence to support improvement of educational practices and reform education systems before adopting education reforms. For once, we have strong evidence. So why wait any longer to promote the use of metacognitive pedagogies in the classroom?

Critical Maths for Innovative Societies The Role of Metacognitive Pedagogies
PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving (Volume V)
PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do (Volume I)
Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective
Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education
The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice 
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
OECD Insights: Want to improve your problem solving skills? Try metacognition
Photo credit: © Aakash Nihalani (“Sum Times”)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Combatting bullying in schools

by Tracey Burns and Andrew Macintyre
Directorate for Education and Skills

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me". So goes the English nursery rhyme taught to children to console them if they have been called names, or teased by their friends or classmates. But no matter how often you repeat it as a child, it doesn’t really make you feel better. Why? Because it’s not true.

Being called names does hurt. A lot. So does being picked on, being pushed around, being excluded from groups – in short, being bullied. Bullying is not new – Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote about it in 1847 and Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) brought the issue widespread attention. It has been the subject of countless  teenage coming of age books. And it regularly makes national headlines with stories of teens being pushed into desperate situations, even suicide, as a result of relentless bullying.

While bullying has been around for a long time, it has recently taken on a new form: cyber bullying. Cyber bullying includes many different forms of online bullying such as sending threatening emails, copying personal conversations and sending them to others, creating derogatory websites about a person or humiliating them repeatedly on social networks. A recent Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looked at this issue and found that estimates of the prevalence of cyber bullying vary widely but an EU-wide study indicates that on average, 6% to 9% of 16-year-olds report being bullied online.

So what can be done? First, it is important to emphasise that although cyber bullying is often represented in the media as something new, it is an extension of traditional face to face bullying. Certainly there are differences – for example, it can be especially hurtful because it can be witnessed by a much larger audience than face-to-face bullying, such as when pictures of a humiliating event or abuse are circulated and recirculated among an entire school or village. Cyber bullying is also not confined to school hours and can happen anywhere, anytime.

However these differences should not blind us to the similarities with face-to-face bullying in the damage it can cause. Bullying, in all of its forms, is no laughing matter. Bullies, motivated to enhance their status among their peers, bully in front of witnesses, whose approval (or at least tacit silence) is crucial. They tend to choose their victims from those who sit in the bottom line of the social ledger, those least able to fight back. And it works, both to raise the popularity of the bully and to hurt the victim: the research to date shows that victims of bullying do worse at school, tend to have lower self-esteem, and are more likely to attempt suicide – both during childhood and later on in life.

There is one interesting finding that also emerges from the research: the bully and victim roles can be interchangeable and related. Of the young internet users surveyed in the EU Kids Online Survey quoted above, only 4% of those who reported not bullying others had been the victim of cyber bullying themselves. For self-confessed online bullies, 47% reported being bullied in turn.

This finding is key. It shatters the myth that the bully is always an evil, swaggering strongman (or woman) who ruthlessly attacks the weaker, more vulnerable peer, so popular in comic books and superhero films. While this may be true in many circumstances, it is not uncommon that those who bully are also bullied, and vice versa. This is a useful reminder for us that the dynamics of human behaviour are complex, and not given to easy solutions. So what can be done?

Luckily, we know quite a bit about what can be done to fight bullying, both face-to-face and online. A recent systematic review of the literature has demonstrated that school-based anti-bullying programmes are often effective. The most successful interventions were in-depth work in parent trainings, improved playground supervision, use of disciplinary methods (both punitive and non-punitive), and work on classroom management and in teacher training. Programmes were also more effective when addressed to older children (age 11 or more). However, and this is important - one type of programme was associated with an increase in victimisation, and that was work with peers, for example peer mediation and peer mentoring.

These results and work on bullying more generally give policy makers a number of good options for addressing the issue in their schools and systems. Parents and teachers can and should intervene in suspect incidents. In all aspects of bullying an important role is played by the bystanders whom, by saying nothing, silently condone the practice. Schools can therefore take action both by raising awareness and by educating students and parents about their role and responsibility in its prevention. As Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace prize winner and South African inspiration put it: If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Trends Shaping Education
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Related blog posts:
2much 2handle? Schools, social networks, and cyber bullying
Making bullying prevention a priority in Finnish schools
Photo credit: Schoolyard bullies, boy walks away with head down / @Shutterstock

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spread the wealth, reap the benefits

by Marilyn Achiron, 
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Quick: Who has more up-to-date textbooks: students in wealthier schools or students in poorer schools? Actually, it depends where you live. As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, not only are some countries better than others in allocating their educational resources more equitably across schools, but students in these countries generally perform better in mathematics.

PISA 2012 asked school principals to report whether teacher shortages, or shortages or inadequacy of physical infrastructure or instructional materials, like textbooks, hindered their school’s ability to provide instruction. PISA found that while disadvantaged schools benefit from investments in smaller classes, they are also more likely to suffer from teacher shortages and inadequate instructional materials than advantaged schools. In general, schools with more socio-economically disadvantaged students tend to have less adequate resources than schools with more advantaged students.

It may come as a surprise, but according to PISA data, the United States is the second least-equitable OECD country, after Mexico, in the allocation of educational resources. One in four disadvantaged students in the United States attends a school whose principal reported that a shortage or inadequacy of science laboratory equipment hindered – to some extent or a lot – the school’s capacity to provide instruction. Meanwhile, only around one in seven advantaged students in the United States attends such a school. The differences between advantaged and disadvantaged schools are even starker among Latin American countries, including the OECD countries Chile and Mexico. For example, fewer than one in two disadvantaged students, but more than three in four advantaged students, in Mexico attend schools that have adequate instructional materials.

Apart from making a huge difference to individual students, inequity in resource allocation has an impact on a country’s overall performance in PISA. After taking into account countries’ relative wealth, 19% of the variation in mathematics performance across all the countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012 can be explained by differences in principals’ responses to questions about the adequacy of science laboratory equipment, instructional materials, computers for instruction, Internet connectivity, computer software for instruction, and library materials. At least 30% of the variation in mathematics performance across OECD countries can be explained by how equitably resources are allocated across all schools.

PISA has consistently found that, when it comes to education, money isn’t everything, and that beyond a certain minimum level of expenditure per student, how the money is spent is more important than how much money is spent. When money is translated into such tangibles as up-to-date textbooks, reliable Internet access, and a school library full of books, spreading the wealth evenly across all schools, regardless of their socio-economic profile, gives all students, not just those in the wealthiest schools, the nourishment they need to succeed.

PISA 2012 Findings
PISA in Focus No. 44: How is equity in resource allocation related to student performance?
PISA in Focus No. 44 (French version)
Photo credit: Teenager students outside protecting their heads from a rain of books / @Shutterstock

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Infinite Connections: The Digital Divide

by Tracey Burns
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills
Roxanne Kovacs 
 MSc in International Development at Sciences Po, Paris

In 1973, Martin Cooper, a researcher at Motorola, made the first call from a handheld mobile phone prototype. This phone weighed 1.1 kg, took 10 hours to re-charge and was limited to 30 minutes of talking time. When it was commercialized in 1983, the phone cost approximately 7,000 USD.

Today, only 30 years later, mobile phones are not just smaller and more affordable, they are also much more powerful. Smartphones now function as small computers and allow us to do everything from shopping online to programming complex applications.

Increasingly affordable, adaptable and powerful ICTs have influenced all aspects of our lives. As OECD societies continue to become more knowledge-intensive, the importance of digital skills continues to grow. And yet, not everyone in OECD countries has the digital skills they need to succeed in our modern world. A recently released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight analyses the role that education plays in ensuring that everyone can reap the benefits of our technology-rich world.

All indicators of ICT use (such as computers per household, global internet traffic and hours spent online) have grown in the last decade, effectively erasing the first digital divide between those who had access to computers and those who did not. However a second digital divide has emerged between individuals who moved to embrace a technology-rich world and those who have been left behind.

Part of this divide is generational: the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) shows that on average 16-24 year olds are much more competent at solving problems in technology-rich environments than their older counterparts. Further, in many countries large parts of the adult population have insufficient ICT problem-solving skills - meaning that they either failed the assessment or were unable to take part because they had never used a computer. Between 30% and 50% of the adult population in Ireland, Poland and the Slovak Republic fall into this category.

However, the digital divide is not only generational. Eight percent of young adults aged 16-24 also had insufficient ICT skills on the PIAAC assessment. Unfortunately, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be less confident and less proficient at using new technologies. There is also a gender gap. Girls use ICTs less intensively and for fewer tasks on average than boys.

What does this mean for education? Schools can play a role in narrowing the digital divide in a number of ways. For disadvantaged students who don’t use ICTs at home, schools are an important access point. In addition, schools can help their students gain confidence in working with new technologies, not just in the classroom but also in their day to day life. Girls – who tend to make effective use of social media and other communication tools but can be less comfortable with programming and other types of software – can be supported to develop a wider array of digital skills.

Developing curriculae that take advantage of the individualised and personalised learning that is supported by ICTs is one good way to do this. Integrating technology into lessons is another: Social networks, often considered an impediment to learning in traditional classrooms, can also be used creatively. Facebook, for example, has been used by some teachers to bring characters from novels and poems to life.

Other examples include the flipped classroom, which attempts to invert the traditional model of teaching and learning by using technology to deliver lectures in the evenings, thus freeing teachers to work on assignments with students during the day. The “homework” in this case is the video lecture, not the exercises.

ICTs can also promote collaboration across schools and classrooms. For example, e-Twinning  is an initiative of the European Commission that aims to build a virtual community of schools. Available in twenty-five languages, it counted over 230 000 members in January 2014.

However, in spite of the potential of our schools to narrow the digital divide, ICTs have remained a niche phenomenon in many schools. Both teachers and students report that students’ ICT-use during lessons still lags far behind their use of ICT outside of school. And while teachers use ICTs for administrative tasks, they are far less likely to do so in their lessons.

What are the barriers to a more extensive adoption of ICTs in schools? Teachers need to be convinced of what works in the classroom, and how they could use technology to achieve those goals (European Schoolnet, 2013). One of the most prominent issues is a lingering concern about quality of ICTs as learning tools. There is a need to provide evidence of what works and how, as well as continuing efforts to improve the quality of educational resources and software.

Our world has changed at a rapid pace since Martin Cooper made the first call from a handheld mobile phone. Our schools and education systems must do their best to keep up, and ensure that all students have the digital skills they need to take part in our knowledge-intensive world.

Connected Minds: Technology and Today’s Learners
OECD Communications Outlook 2013
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
Trends Shaping Education 2013 
Center for Education Research and Innovation (CERI)
More on Flipped classroom
More on eTwinning
Photo credit: Concentrated students in lecture hall working on their futuristic tablet during lesson / Shutterstock


Friday, October 03, 2014

Delivering feedback for better teaching

by Katarzyna Kubacka
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

October 5 marks the 20th anniversary of UNESCO’s World Teachers' Day, a day devoted to “appreciating, assessing and improving educators of the world”. This gives us a great opportunity to reflect again on how schools can celebrate and develop great teaching. One way to do that is through critical exchanges – building constructive feedback systems within the schools.

The OECD Teaching and Learning Survey (TALIS) asks teachers about the feedback they receive within their schools. The TALIS definition of feedback includes formal and informal communication, resulting from some form of observation of teachers’ work. For example, feedback can be provided by comments from the principal, at the end of the school year, in regards to teacher’s work, or in the form of an exchange between teachers who jointly taught a class or observed each other’s classes.

The different ways in which feedback can affect teachers’ professional experiences are the topic of the latest Teaching in Focus brief, “Unlocking the potential of teacher feedback”. Indeed, teacher feedback has tremendous potential, with teachers reporting that feedback can have a positive impact on the professional, personal and pedagogical aspects of their work. Two in three teachers, on average, report a boost to their motivation and job satisfaction after receiving feedback.

At the same time, TALIS data show that there is still much that can be improved in the way feedback is delivered. Most strikingly, more than half of the teachers across TALIS countries report that feedback in their schools is undertaken largely to perform administrative requirements. Such perceptions of feedback as simply a box-checking exercise not only lower teachers’ job satisfaction but are a wasted opportunity to support the professional improvement of teachers.

To be sure, the success of a feedback system depends on both parties involved. School leaders, along with teachers, can use feedback as a tool to map professional development and training needs, and make sure that these needs are addressed in the school priorities. Teachers can also actively contribute to feedback systems by creating collaborative communities in which colleagues can exchange advice and opinion on teaching practices. If used constructively, teacher feedback can support teachers’ professional development as well as strengthen collaboration within schools.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Who is most likely to be left back at school?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

It was the kind of thing you whispered about with your classmates, while for the kid himself – and it usually was a “he” – it was an embarrassment that some tried, unsuccessfully, to dress up as a badge of honour. Being left back at school was no joke; and the practice continues to take a toll on millions of students every year – even though it does little to benefit the individual student who is required to repeat a grade.

The latest PISA in Focus highlights how successive rounds of PISA have found that grade repetition shows no clear benefit, either for individual students or for school systems as a whole. It is also an expensive way of handling underachievement, since the students who are left back are more likely to drop out of school entirely, or stay longer in the school system and so spend less time in the labour force.

Some countries have begun to realise that grade repetition is neither cheap nor particularly effective in assisting struggling students. They are rejecting the practice in favour of identifying and providing support earlier to these students. Among the 13 countries and economies that had grade repetition rates of more than 20% in 2003, for example, these rates dropped by an average of 3.5 percentage points by 2012. Rates fell particularly sharply in France, Luxembourg, Macao-China, Mexico and Tunisia.

Results from PISA 2012 suggest another good reason to end the practice of grade repetition: because disadvantaged students are more likely than advantaged students to repeat a grade, grade repetition tends to reinforce inequities in the school system. Across OECD countries, one in five socio-economically disadvantaged students reported that they had repeated a grade at least once since they entered primary school, while fewer than one in ten advantaged students reported so. In Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia and Uruguay, more than one in two disadvantaged students reported that they had repeated a grade at least once since they entered primary school.

More troubling is that even among students with similar performance in mathematics, reading and science, the likelihood of having repeated a grade is often linked to socio-economic background. In 33 of the 61 countries and economies analysed, the odds of repeating grades are significantly higher among disadvantaged students than among advantaged students, after accounting for differences in mathematics, reading and science performance across students. On average across OECD countries, disadvantaged students are 1.5 times more likely to repeat grades than advantaged students who perform at the same level.

What this shows is that poor academic performance is not the only reason students are left back; other factors related to socio-economic disadvantage come into play as well. For example, grade repetition may be used not to help students who are lagging behind, but as a form of punishment to sanction misbehaviour. PISA data show that disadvantaged students are significantly more likely than their advantaged peers to arrive late for school or to skip classes. But it is unclear – at best – how repeating a grade improves behaviour in class and engagement at school. What is clear is that students who arrive late for school or skip classes miss out on learning opportunities, which, in turn, reinforces inequities related to socio-economic background.

Being required to repeat a grade adds shame and embarrassment to students who may already be discouraged and disaffected at school – and to no apparent benefit. Instead of making struggling students the focus of class gossip, isn’t it better to make them the focus of the support, extra help and encouragement they need – as soon as they need it?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Is expanding access to higher education worth the price?

by Dirk van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

As Education at a Glance 2014  found, education systems continue to expand and levels of educational attainment continue to rise throughout the world. Across OECD countries in 2012, 32% of 25-64 year-olds – over 220 million individuals – held a tertiary degree. Among young adults, the proportion is even higher: 40%. Never before have so many people attained that level of education. Just 12 years earlier, only 22% of 25-64 year-olds had a tertiary education. The tertiary attainment rate among 25-34 year-olds grew by an average of 3.4% per year between 2000 and 2012, and in most countries, it is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

Such a rapid increase in both participation  and completion rates for tertiary studies puts a huge stress on countries’ education systems and governments’ capacity to support tertiary educational institutions. Indicators on expenditure show that between 2000 and 2011 countries had to allocate a higher percentage of national wealth (measured as a proportion of GDP) to tertiary education: from 1.3% to 1.6%. In general, this increase allowed countries not only to compensate for the increasing numbers of students, but also to increase, however slightly, expenditure per student. Between 2008 and 2011, in the midst of the global economic crisis, expenditure per students increased by 2.5% on average across OECD countries.

Obviously, some countries could not follow this pattern: during the same period, 11 countries had to cut expenditure per student. Others tried to avoid putting the increasing cost of tertiary education on public budgets by boosting the share of private spending, for example by raising tuition fees. Between 2000 and 2011, the share of public expenditure on tertiary education fell from 75.3% of total spending to 69.2%. Whatever the source of funding, societies had to boost their investments in tertiary education.

But, in the end, are the additional expenses of families and taxpayers, the time and energy of students and families, and the efforts of universities to adapt their educational processes worth it? Some commentators doubt it; they point to the risk of over-schooling, of skills mismatches, of high-qualified workers stealing the jobs of mid- and low-qualified adults. Some governments want to contain the increasing numbers of students and build the case for a more selective tertiary education system. Others argue that the economic transformation in most OECD countries points towards an increased demand of the kind of skills that universities tend to supply, and that countries had better be prepared by producing a highly qualified workforce for the next decades. It is not easy to settle this debate, and realities differ across countries. But Education at a Glance provides a range of data that can inform the debate.

One way of looking at this is to compare the wage premium for tertiary educated individuals across countries and relate this to the level of tertiary attainment. The wage premium is not a perfect measure of the demand for tertiary-educated workers, since it is also influenced by the overall wage inequality in a country. Not all countries are alike in the way the market rewards highly educated people. For example, the wage premium tends to be relatively high in the more open and market-oriented economies like the United States or the United Kingdom. In contrast, more egalitarian Nordic countries have a compressed wage structure where the relative wage premium for higher educational attainment is lower.

But despite these differences, we still can investigate the overall relationship between the two indicators. Does the share of tertiary-educated people affect the wage premium for young tertiary- educated workers who are just entering the labour market? Are countries that have allowed their tertiary education systems to expand at a rapid pace, and have thrown huge numbers of tertiary-educated people onto the labour market, jeopardising the economic return of investment in a tertiary qualification for younger workers? If the labour market were to be saturated with highly schooled individuals, one would expect relatively small earnings differences between tertiary- and upper secondary-educated workers. The chart above plots countries against the tertiary attainment rate among adults and the current wage premium for tertiary-educated 25-34 year-olds.

The few countries in the lower left quadrant have relatively low rates of tertiary attainment and they also demonstrate a relatively low wage premium. In the case of Greece, it is clear that the economy is in such bad shape that the comparative scarcity of highly qualified workers does not lead to better pay. In the upper right quadrant we find countries that have high educational attainment rates and that also reward those people well, mainly because of their relatively wide distribution of wages.

In the upper left part of the chart we see countries that have seen huge increases in tertiary attainment and that might face the risk of relative overschooling. But several of these countries are welfare state-type economies with relatively low wage inequalities, and where the wage premium of tertiary education is comparatively low anyway. In the lower right section we find countries that are more hesitant to increase the share of highly educated people in the working population, but pay them well. Over time, these countries might be faced with an undersupply of highly educated people should the economy continue to develop a demand for them.

Overall, the pattern suggests that having more highly educated adults in the labour force might reduce access to higher wages for younger, tertiary-educated adults who are just entering the labour market. But the relationship is not particularly strong, and is heavily influenced by the outliers. Institutional arrangements in national labour markets also affect countries’ position on the chart. Countries have their unique ways of preparing a highly skilled workforce for the future economy. Some favour a strict approach, producing just the amount of skills the market requires now. Others try to fuel innovation and productivity by oversupplying the economy with higher-level skills. Many others refrain from steering demand for education at all; their education systems simply respond to demand. At this point, it is impossible to say who is right and who is wrong.

Chart source: OECD Education at a Glance 2014: Indicators A1; A6  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Hungry for some education data? Go no further…

by Dirk van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

The 2014 edition of Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators is released today. Find out how your country compares with others in such areas as who participates in education, and to what level; the wage premium for workers with higher education; how much of the public budget is devoted to education; what teachers earn; which countries are most attractive to international students; how education, skills and employment are inter-related; and much, much more. To whet your appetite, try our interactive data charts below.

Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators
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Press release: Educational mobility starts to slow in industrialised world, says OECD 
Wednesday September 10 at 17h Paris time - OECD Education and Skills webinar presenting Education at a Glance: 2014 OECD Indicators (registration required. Password: OECDEDU)
Follow #OECDEAG on Twitter:  @OECD_Edu @OECDLive @EAG_Indicators
See full listing of media events
Photo credit: ©OECD

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Act now to boost Norway’s skills

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills 

When Norway makes the front page, the focus is usually on the country’s vast natural resources which have generated the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. In today’s economic climate, this is definitely good news.

Yet if you look beyond the headlines there is little room for complacency. Norway faces slowing productivity growth in the mainland economy, high labour costs and modest levels of entrepreneurship and innovation.

How can these challenges be tackled? In the words of Prime Minister Solberg, “Skills are the cure”. Skills are central to ensuring Norway’s future competitiveness as well as the health, wealth and well-being of its people. The economic value of Norway’s skills could be over ten times the value of its natural resources, and while the latter are finite and declining the former are infinite. The difficulty is that skills and oil don't usually mix very well. Most of the world’s oil-rich countries could do a lot better to develop and use the skills of their people. Concerted efforts are therefore needed to connect skills with jobs, productivity, prosperity and social cohesion.

The OECD Skills Strategy Action Report: Norway, published today, identifies five key actions to strengthen Norway’s skills system. They are supported by detailed suggestions on how both government and stakeholders in Norway can deliver on these actions, and are illustrated with examples drawn from other countries’ experience. The report also includes a set of concrete proposals that were developed by stakeholders during an interactive design workshop held in Oslo this spring.

So what are the five key actions for Norway?

1. Set up a “Skills Strategy for Norway” incorporating a whole-of-government approach.
2. Establish an action plan for continuous education and training.
3. Strengthen the link between skills development and economic growth.
4. Build a comprehensive career guidance system.
5. Strengthen incentives for people to move into shortage occupations.

Taken together, these five key actions constitute a strong and coherent platform for new policy development, and better implementation of existing skills policies in Norway.

The OECD Skills Strategy Action Report: Norway reflects the many valuable contributions received from a wide range of ministries, agencies and over 60 non-governmental actors in the course of 2013-2014, as part of a collaborative project between the OECD and Norway. It builds upon the extensive analysis and findings of the OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Norway, published in February 2014, and applies the OECD Skills Strategy three-pillar framework of developing relevant skills, activating skills supply and putting skills to effective use.

Maximising Norway’s skills potential is everyone’s business. Achieving this will require a shared commitment and concerted action across ministries, counties, local governments and social partners. This report will have served its purpose as a catalyst, if it inspires action in the schools, universities and workplaces where people’s skills are developed, activated and put to use. Moreover it comes as a timely reminder that the actions Norway takes today will drive innovation, productivity and prosperity in the future, while ensuring that no-one is left behind.

So when you next spot Norway in the news, take a closer look.

Norwegian skills, rather than oil, might be making the headlines.

OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Norway
OECD Skills Strategy
Survey of Adult Skills
For more on skills and skills policies around the world, visit:
See also the country page on skills for Norway
Related blog posts on skills:
Skills will power Norway’s future prosperity, by Andreas Schleicher
Skill up or lose out, by Andreas Schleicher
Let’s talk about skills, by Joanne Caddy
Photo credit: Norway High Resolution Talent Concept  / @Shutterstock

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sowing the seeds of education reform

by Marilyn Achiron, 
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Plant a tree? Easy: dig up soil, insert sapling, cover roots with soil, water abundantly.

Unless the tree you want to plant is from Japan and the soil in which you want to plant it is in Paris. Then you have to negotiate with two different ministries of agriculture and arrange to have a branch of a Japanese cherry blossom tree grafted onto roots developed in France before you can follow the four simple steps above.

Who knew?

As it turns out, apart from illustrating how even the simplest and most well-intentioned act of gift-giving could turn into a bureaucratic nightmare if not properly thought out, the plan to plant a Japanese cherry blossom tree on the grounds of OECD headquarters in Paris, in gratitude for the organisation’s support of the Tohoku School, offered the Japanese students involved yet another example of why learning how to learn is as important as what one learns.

The OECD-Tohoku School project was born in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that flooded more than 550 square kilometres of land, killed more than 18,000 people, and triggered a cooling-system failure at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant that led to a partial meltdown at the plant. The idea of the project was to turn the tragedy into an opportunity.  Through a “bottom-up”, project-based approach to learning, backed by the Japanese Ministry for Education, Fukushima University and other local stakeholders, and supported by the OECD, 100 junior and senior high school students in the Tohoku region worked with their teachers and members of the community – including industry, government and academia – to draw international attention to the region’s recovery and attractions. In the process, they began to acquire the kinds of skills – collaboration, innovation, leadership – that are so essential for life in knowledge-based 21st century economies.

“In regular school, we just sit at tables. The teachers teach and we study,” says Chikato Nakamura, 17, who participated in the project. “In this project, adults and children are equal. When we say something, teachers listen. Teachers and students co-operate with each other.”

Emi Kubota, a 17-year-old whose grandparents died in the tsunami, had similar experiences at the OECD-Tohoku School: “In regular school, when I’m worried about something, a teacher will help me. At the Tohoku School, the teacher will help, but I have to try to help myself first; and other students co-operate to solve the problem.”

The two-and-a-half-year project saw its fruition last weekend at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, when 80 Tohoku School students came with exhibits and performances celebrating the customs, foods and innovative technologies of their region. Yesterday, the obstacles thrown up by international law nearly overcome (a French botanist continues work on grafting branches to roots), the students also planted a cherry blossom tree – a symbol of hope, endurance and vitality in the face of adversity. Their presence in Paris was testament to their own efforts, ingenuity and resilience – and evidence that it is possible to change the way students – and teachers – approach education.

The idea now is to plant the seeds of these new approaches to learning in schools throughout Japan – and beyond. Says Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, “These young students are the innovators and game-changers for our schools today and our societies tomorrow. They don't just have great ideas; they also have the capacity to make them happen.”

Thanks to Hikari Kunishio for her translations.

OECD-Tohoku School
The OECD Tohoku School: Moving forward together: Interview with Kohei Oyama and Yoko Tsurimaki, Students of the OECD Tohoku School Project
Lessons in learning, amid the rubble by Barbara Ischinger, former Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Rebuilding education after the tsunami - some impressions by Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Image: ©OECD Tohoku School

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

More data for better policies

by Dirk van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

As recently as 30 years ago, politicians, leaders and practitioners believed that all economic and social systems could and should be measured, and that managing these systems better would require more data. Except for education systems. Education systems were considered to be so different across countries that international data would never do justice to each system’s specificity. And what happened in the classroom was something believed to be unmeasurable. Yes, maybe you could count the number of students or calculate the years people spend in school; but that was basically it.

Some pioneers had the courage to think differently. Against the tide, and confronting a lot of resistance, they organised international network meetings to discuss the essence of what was happening in education, agree on definitions, develop measurement tools, and exchange and compare data. After all, how could it be that what seemed to be so evident in many other complex systems was impossible in education?

Back to the present. The pioneers have gone; highly professional teams are now bringing their ideas into fruition. We have come to understand that, just as in all other spheres of life, many dimensions of what happens in education can be measured and assessed in an internationally comparative way, without doing injustice to the complexity and sensitivity of education. We now know not only how to count students and the amount of money invested in education, we also know how to translate complex realities into accessible language, thanks to tools such as ISCED. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has taught us how to master the challenge of assessing the knowledge and skills that students acquire in schools. We have been able to relate education to external data on employment, earnings, health outcomes and more intangible outcomes, such as interpersonal trust, to better understand the many social purposes that education serves.

On 9 September the OECD will publish its 2014 edition of Education at a Glance, the world’s most extensive and authoritative data source of international educational statistics and indicators. This year’s edition includes no less than 30 different indicators and over 100 000 pieces of data. Policy makers, education leaders, practitioners and a wide variety of stakeholders will try to find out how their system is doing compared to that of other countries. How educated have our societies become? Have the investments in our schools decreased as a consequence of the economic crisis? How large is the earnings premium from which tertiary graduates benefit over their lifetime? Do pupils in private schools perform better than in public schools? Is social mobility a reality or just an aspiration? How well do we pay our teachers? How many students now travel over the globe to study elsewhere? These questions emerge not just out of curiosity. The data and the evidence increasingly serve to underpin and improve policies. A system as complex as education cannot be managed and steered without reliable and comparable data. Better and more data result in better policies.

This year’s edition is particularly rich because the OECD has been able to benefit from three main sources of survey data: the PISA 2012 database on learning outcomes of 15-year-olds, the data from the Survey of Adult Skills (a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC), and data on teachers from the 2013 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). Combined with the data collected from administrative sources, we now have the largest database in education ever brought together in human history.

Does this mean that the mystery of the educational encounter between teacher and learner has been sacrificed on the altar of numbers? No, just as the sophisticated data-monitoring systems in the health sector have not destroyed the genius of the medical act. In both cases the data have helped to create better conditions for the magic to happen.

Launch events:
Live streaming of launch event in Brussels with Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills, and Xavier Prats Monné, European Commission Deputy Director-General for Education and Culture
OECD Education and Skills webinar presenting Education at a Glance: 2014 OECD Indicators (registration required. Password: OECDEDU)
Follow #OECDEAG on Twitter:  @OECD_Edu @OECDLive @EAG_Indicators
See full listing of media events
OECD Education at a Glance
Education GPS - the OECD source for internationally comparable data on education policies and practices
Photo credit: © OECD

Monday, September 01, 2014

How do teachers really feel about their job?

by Katarzyna Kubacka
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

September marks the return to school for many students, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, and the return to classrooms for many teachers. It is difficult to know exactly what teachers around the world are thinking as they walk into their classrooms. However, the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) provides us with some useful insights into how teachers feel about their profession and its standing in society.

Media often paints a picture of dissatisfied teachers who are unhappy with their jobs. TALIS findings offer a different view: most of teachers enjoy their job and see the advantages of being a teacher as clearly outweighing the disadvantages. This is good news for education systems around the world:  job satisfaction has important implications for teacher attrition as well as teachers’ attitudes about their job. Teachers who are satisfied with their jobs are more likely to stay in their profession, and feel confident in their skills as teachers.

At the same time, TALIS data show that some teachers do not see their profession as appreciated by society. Less than one in three teachers across TALIS countries believe that teaching is a valued profession in their country. Such a negative perception is likely to affect not only teachers who are currently at the start of their teaching career, but also those considering teaching as a career path. This is an alarming discovery, as building effective education systems requires securing the most qualified candidates for the teaching profession. Indeed, results show that teachers from high performing education systems are more likely to report that they believe their profession to be valued within society. What is it that these countries are doing right?

There are policies and practices that can support teacher job satisfaction. Empowering teachers is one such method: the extent to which teachers can participate in decision-making within their schools has a strong positive association with their perception of being valued. The results also show that the social connections teachers build in schools make a big difference. Positive relationships between teachers, as well as between teachers and students, are related to higher job satisfaction. Collaboration between teachers is another factor that is positively associated with teachers’ job satisfaction, as well as opportunities for professional development. These and other findings from the TALIS 2013 report can be helpful for policy-makers and education leaders in their efforts to build better teaching and learning environments.

To learn more about this topic, take a look at the Teaching in Focus brief. Look out for further Teaching in Focus briefs in the coming months via our website,, that will be discussing topics relevant to the experience of teachers, based on the TALIS 2013 report.

Teaching and Learning International Survey
Teaching In Focus No. 5: What helps teachers feel valued and satisfied by their jobs? by Katarzyna Kubacka
A Teachers' Guide to TALIS 2013
Photo credit: Young business woman writing question mark  / @Shutterstock 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Spoiled for choice?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Would you rather choose where to send your child to school or have the decision made for you based on where you live? Many parents would rather choose, in the belief that with choice comes the chance of getting a better education for their child. But results from PISA find that education systems do not necessarily benefit as a result.

As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, where parents can choose the school that their children attend, socio-economically disadvantaged parents can end up choosing the best school among a more limited set of choices than more affluent parents; as a result, the benefits of school choice may not accrue to the same extent to disadvantaged students as to their more advantaged peers. And if affluent families are more likely to opt out of the neighbourhood school than poorer residents of the same area, competition may increase socio-economic segregation in schools.

To understand how school choice works in practice, PISA asked parents to rate the importance of different criteria for choosing a school for their children, from “not important at all” to “very important”. Among the list of 11 possible criteria given to parents, one is directly related to the quality of teaching and learning (“The academic achievements of students in the school are high”), but only a minority of parents rated this as “very important” (except in Korea, where 50% of parents did).

Three of the criteria for school choice listed in the parent questionnaire are related to direct or indirect monetary costs (“the school is a short distance from home”; “expenses are low”; “the school has financial aid available”). For more affluent parents, these cost-related factors weigh less than the quality of instruction in their choice of schools, as shown by the proportion of parents who rate the different criteria as “very important”. But in 10 out of the 11 countries and economies that distributed the parent questionnaire, disadvantaged parents tend to choose their children’s school as much on the basis of cost-related factors as on the quality of instruction. These data therefore suggest that parents of different socio-economic status do not seek the same information about schools before choosing one; and even if they have information about the quality of instruction, it may not be the deciding factor.

PISA results also show that, on average across countries, school competition is not related to better mathematics performance among students. In systems where almost all 15-year-olds attend schools that compete for enrolment, average performance is similar to that in systems where school competition is the exception.

What this means is that school choice may actually spoil some of the intended benefits of competition, such as greater innovation in education and a better match between students’ needs and interests and what schools offer, by reinforcing social inequities at the same time.

PISA 2012 Findings
PISA in Focus No. 42 : When is competition between schools beneficial?
OECD PISA for Parents Facebook page
Photo credit: Set of colorful lockers  / @Shutterstock 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Are teachers really resistant to change?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Teachers are often accused of conservatism and resistance to change. Many education policy makers can list numerous examples of well-intentioned reforms that were opposed by the teaching profession and their union representatives in the past. But teachers will argue that reforms are often imposed from the top down, without much consultation with or respect for the professional wisdom and experience of the teachers themselves. At the same time, the teaching profession has not yet completely succeeded in developing a dynamic and change-oriented perspective for its future. The result is that teaching methods and techniques that have worked in the past have become the yardstick by which to assess – and often condemn – ideas about what could work in the future. At least, this seems to be the dominant view.

The finding that, in fact, teachers become more satisfied in their work when education systems go through a process of innovation may thus come as a complete surprise. Innovation and teacher job satisfaction are not mutually exclusive. A new publication from the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective, brings together a wealth of data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that capture various forms of innovation in education. It also presents a composite innovation index for 28 countries or school systems with sufficient amounts of data for the period 2000-11 that covers several areas of innovation-oriented change, such as innovation in instructional practices, in class organisation, in methods of assessment, in the use of technology, in teacher evaluation and feedback mechanisms, and in the ways schools interact with their environments. The composite index measures the size of the changes that have occurred over time as a result of the combined effects of these innovations. (Of course, these school systems might have very different relative positions on the respective indicators.)

According to this index of overall innovation, Denmark, Hungary, Indonesia, Korea, the Netherlands and the Russian Federation have seen the greatest innovation-orientated change between 2000 and 2011. The state of Massachusetts in the United States, Austria and the Czech Republic show the smallest innovation-oriented change. The greater change seen in countries like Indonesia and the Russian Federation can be explained by a catch-up effect, whereas the relatively small change seen in Massachusetts may reflect the state’s already-high level of innovation in education at the beginning of the period. Both the Russian Federation and Indonesia show large changes in more interactive and realistic instructional practices, in encouraging students to reason, rather than learn by rote, in independent work by students, in giving more individual attention to students, and in changes in class organisation and assessment. Both countries also reported large improvements in the use of information and communications technology and in Internet connectivity in the classroom. In Massachusetts, these practices were already in place in 2000 or a negative change was observed in some of the data.

In 23 school systems, this overall innovation index can be correlated with a measure of satisfaction among 8th-grade mathematics teachers between 2003 and 2011, based on TIMSS data (see chart above). The outcomes of this exercise are amazing: the correlation between the two sets of data is strong. In general, school systems that have gone through an intense process of innovation in education tend to be those where teacher satisfaction has increased the most. The relationship is very clear in the upper right quadrant, which includes countries that have innovated more than the average among the OECD countries with available data. However, less change related to innovation does not necessarily correlate with less teacher satisfaction. Some countries in the lower left quadrant have seen a smaller increase in teacher satisfaction than the OECD average, or, in the case of Chile and Sweden, even a decrease, but in the other countries shown on the left of the chart, there is no real relationship between the two data sets.

The composite system-level innovation index includes measures of innovation-oriented change on two levels, the school level and the classroom level. The analysis shows that classroom-level innovation is more strongly correlated with the trend in teacher satisfaction. Clearly, innovation that affects teachers’ daily work – and which probably tends to increase their professional autonomy – matters most for teacher satisfaction.

Interestingly, the composite system-level innovation index also correlates positively with trends in the TIMSS 8th-grade mathematics learning outcomes between 2003 and 2011, as well as various PISA measures of equity in learning. At the risk of over-generalising, it seems that the kinds of innovation in education captured by this OECD innovation index increased the capacity of teachers and schools to cope with challenges, boosted teacher autonomy, and improved teacher satisfaction, ultimately improving students’ learning outcomes and the capacity of systems to create favourable learning conditions for all students in a more equitable manner.

The bottom line is that change, in itself, does not run counter to teacher satisfaction – quite the contrary. In countries or systems where there was a process of rapid innovation-related change, teachers reported greater job satisfaction. If teachers react so positively to change, they can hardly be seen as “conservative”.

The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Chart source: © OECD

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Think Green: education and environmental awareness

by Tracey Burns and Roxanne Kovacs
Directorate for Education and Skills

The environment is a hot topic in the press and classrooms across the world and much has been said about the need for action to protect our planet. If current trends in climate change continue, temperatures could increase between 3 and 6 degrees Celsius by 2050. Such large temperature increases would lead to water shortages for billions of people, reduce agricultural yields, increase malnutrition related deaths by millions and lead to the extinction of a large part of animal species.

Education plays a crucial role in raising awareness of environmental challenges and shaping the attitudes and behaviours that can make a difference. A recently released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at the role of education in both preparing and providing our citizens with the skills needed for a sustainable and productive future.

A first step in addressing the issue is raising awareness. Many classrooms already discuss important issues like recycling or sustainable consumption. However we need to do much more – results from the last PISA test that looked specifically at environmental science show that on average across the OECD, only 19% of students performed at the highest level of proficiency. Students at this proficiency level were aware of environmental issues and understood their complexity, which suggests that they have an adequate understanding of the challenges that climate change presents.

Some countries do better than others: in Canada, Finland and Japan for example, more than 30% of students performed at the highest level of proficiency. However more must be done to improve the level of the poorest performers. On average across the OECD, 16% of students performed at the lowest proficiency level and in countries like Italy, Mexico and Turkey more than 20% of students perform at the lowest proficiency level. These students were unable to answer questions about basic environmental phenomena. They were also much more likely to be overly optimistic about environmental issues and much less aware of the dramatic consequences of inaction.

So, what can be done? The performance of students in environmental science is closely related to performance in traditional science courses (such as physics, biology and chemistry). Better science education in general can thus be combined with specialised courses in order to increase student proficiency in environmental science. The next cycle of PISA (in 2015) will again focus on science issues and will be an opportunity to verify which countries have taken the lead on the topic and which are falling behind.

The need for green skills extends beyond basic education. Vocational education programmes are important in preparing students to be flexible and adaptable to changing standards and requirements. In fact, countries already struggle to provide workers with the right skillset. For example, German and Spanish authorities have signalled a lack in skilled photovoltaic workers to install and maintain solar electrical systems. Such skill shortages are a major impediment to the growth in these green industries. They also make the move to a green economy slower and more expensive than it could be.

For basic education as well as vocational education and training, policy measures such as work-based learning and the provision of better career guidance can be powerful tools to strengthen the link between skills development and the green-growth agenda of countries.

Universities also play an important role. In 2011, 220,000 students received university degrees in “green” subjects (for example, environmental protection and physical sciences (climactic research, meteorology)) across the OECD. This constitutes a 62% increase in “green graduates” since 1998, which is comparable to growth rates in fields like mathematics and statistics.

Even though it is important that individuals have the right technical skills and scientific knowledge to go green, this alone will not be enough. In order to act effectively, individuals need to be willing to trade off immediate gains (taking the car instead of less convenient public transport, for example, or turning the air conditioning up to maximum on hot days) for long-term sustainability. Making these choices requires critical thinkers who can connect their daily decisions to long-term consequences, not just for themselves, but for society as a whole. Our schools and universities must play their part in preparing us for this challenge.

Trends Shaping Education 2013
Green at Fifteen? How 15-year-olds perform in environmental science and geoscience in PISA
PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science (Volume I)
OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050
Greener Skills and Jobs, OECD Green Growth Studies
Center for Education Research and Innovation (CERI)
Photo credit: Recycling Girl / @Shutterstock