Education International
Education International

PISA: A call for quality teachers and quality public education

published 3 December 2013 updated 5 December 2013

Education International (EI) welcomes many of the policy insights today's release of the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides, especially the emphasis on teacher qualifications and quality being the essence of excellent systems. However, EI also highlights the problematics of using league tables and the inevitable limitations of sampling.

“There is much policy insight in PISA 2012 which I welcome,” says EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen. “In particular it is absolutely clear that no country's education system can be successful unless there is a confident high quality teaching profession. It also clear that arguments for enhancing the private sector at the expense of public education and for increasing competition between schools are fallacious. PISA 2012 also contains powerful evidence that successful education systems have to put teachers at the centre of school management and pay teachers properly. Resources are obviously a key predictor for success particularly for poorer countries.”

Problematic aspects of PISA

Where PISA is problematic is in its use of league tables, he notes. Apart from the fact that even OECD admits that it can't be certain of its rankings given the inevitable limitations of sampling, there are countries which are improving their systems yet find themselves near the bottom of the tables. A much better way, which is actually included in PISA, is data which allows a country to compare its year on year achievements.

Van Leeuwen also adds that the other problem of course is that the three literacies which PISA surveys could not describe every vital aspect of education. The OECD should make it very clear that PISA is not an evaluation of complete education systems.

Positive: Emphasis on teacher qualifications and quality

“Nevertheless, I welcome the OECD's emphasis on teacher qualifications and quality being the essence of excellent systems,” van Leeuwen says.

“I only hope that this will have some impact on the enemies of public education. EI agrees with OECD’s strong conclusion that the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers,” he underlines.

“Countries that have improved significantly their performance over the last ten years have established policies to improve the quality of their teaching staff by improving professional standards, increasing salaries to make the profession more attractive for new entrants into profession and by offering incentives for teachers to engage in in-service training programmes.”

The 2013 OECD’s PISA involves the largest number of countries yet. Focusing on achievements in numeracy it is also the most high stakes of all the PISAs to be published given that a record number of countries (65) have taken part. OECD believes the tests used for evaluating 15 year olds’ ability to use and apply knowledge in numeracy, reading and science are valid and reliable. It also believes the tests are culturally neutral having applied an evaluation of them in relation to countries’ own tests. One of PISA’s features is its country rankings system to which, in PISA 2012, upper and lower positions have been allocated to countries to compensate for uncertainty created by the sampling method.

PISA’s key policy solutions are set out below

  • Early detection mechanisms should be used, as in Finland, to detect low performance
  • Low performance should be targeted.
  • Disadvantaged children should be targeted with additional resources or economic assistance.
  • In countries more universal policies should be applied to raise standards.
  • Marginalised students should be included in mainstream classrooms and schools

Disadvantaged schools still have difficulties in attracting qualified teachers

Where school systems segregate students, those students tend to be segregated by socio-economic status and by the frequency of their exposure to Mathematics.

While school autonomy is an important predictor of performance there has to be: a strong education system where everyone understands common expectations; teachers must be able to take part in the management of schools; and performance data must be made public.

There is little difference between the performance of schools in the private sector and the public sector when the social background of students has been taken into account, and high performing countries manage to place high performing teachers in socially disadvantaged schools.

Competition is not a predictor for school outcomes

Parents want safe school environments, an active learning climate and for their school to have a good reputation.

Resources in poorer countries are a strong predictor of performance but in richer countries it is how the resources are spent which is the key predictor.

Other strong key predictors of performance are: quality early year’s education and equitable allocation of resources and channelling additional resources to disadvantaged schools.

PISA also stresses that high performing countries also pay teachers well and choose this as a policy priority over reducing class size. Moreover, in these specific countries, the results show no correlation between the quality of school buildings and performance.

EI welcomes the policy debate raised by PISA on how to achieve quality education systems. As the PISA approach is based on equity of high outcomes for the largest possible number of students many of its conclusions provide supportive evidence for policy arguments for promoting high quality public education systems.

Click here to download EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen's letter to EI affiliates, analyzing key points of PISA 2012.

Click here to download the PISA 2012 Executive Summary.