‘Internationalist, not isolationist’

Randi Weingarten, attorney, educator and president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers spoke with Marilyn Achiron during an afternoon at OECD headquarters.

Marilyn Achiron: To what extent do you look to international examples for improving teaching performance? To what extent is that important to you?
Randi Weingarten: Good practice and what works knows no geographic boundaries. We should be looking for it wherever we find it. To borrow somebody else’s expression, the world has become more and more flat, more and more accessible, more and more global. Therefore, in some ways, geographic boundaries mean very little in the economic system of the world. When you know that, then you have to look around the world to see what is working, how to innovate, how to ensure that kids have the skills that they need so that they can compete, or at least so that they can be enabled not simply to dream their dreams, but to achieve them. So whether you think about it from a process standpoint, in terms of what is working in education; or you think about it from an economic standpoint, in terms of what the world has become; or whether you think about in terms of a child’s standpoint, in terms of how do we enable kids to become successful in the world in which they will find themselves, we have to be internationalists, not isolationists. That is what the OECD’s work is about.

MA: Given the economic morass we’re in, and given that, in most OECD countries, societies are aging, is there the risk that teachers’ unions will become marginalised in the next few years? What can be done to maintain their relevancy?
RW: I think the fight about relevancy has been happening over the last two years. We have to win that fight if we believe that voice and democracy is important for societies to prosper and if we believe that education is essential for a society to be a good society. There are lots of people who look at the world and think about it as a race to the bottom. They think: “the only way we can compete is to ensure that we pay the least amount for the most amount of goods”. And that way of viewing life means that each successive generation is going to do worse than their parents did. That is antithetical to what we always believed was the American dream; and it is, frankly, antithetical to the whole notion, seen all across the world, that if you work hard then you are going to do better than your parents did; and that your kids are going to do better than you did. What the labour movement has always been about, whether it is the teachers’ unions or other unions, is about the dignity of work, is about ensuring that work garners with it a good wage and some security. It is not a free lunch, not a free ride. If one actually believes that our best days ought to be ahead of us, then you have to believe in the social and economic engines that help us get there; and the labour movement is one of those engines.

What’s interesting is that this time of economic morass has created another Gilded Age. There are some people who are doing quite well; and the gap between rich and poor has grown greater than it has ever been. But if we don’t create a sense of who are the engines that will help propel the world to greater things in the decades to come, that will help solve the world’s real problems, whether they are economic or environmental, if we just throw our hands up and give up, then the world will be a very different place.

One of most hopeful things I’ve seen in the last few years is the effect PISA has had. The effect has been to open a window on what works to educate youngsters across the world. It is not simply having results that say Country A is outperforming Country B. What the OECD has done and the data and analysis has shown is why certain countries outperform others. And that is one of the most valuable pieces of work we can have: a path to the key attributes to long-term, systemic, scalable change so that we help all kids succeed.

The conversation with Randi Weingarten will continue in a forthcoming post.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC)
American Federation of Teachers

Photo credit: Ilene Perlman
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Calling all youth: Get involved in the OECD Global Youth Video Competition 2012

by Desiree Quinteros
OECD Global Youth Video Competition 2011 winner and Consultant to the OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

Where am I going to work after I finish my studies? This is the question all young students face sooner or later, but finding a quick answer is growing more and more difficult. Finding the “dream job” has never been easy, but finding a “job” is becoming harder, particularly after the financial and economic crisis. As the OECD Emploment Outlook 2011 points out, “while overall unemployment has fallen from its recessionary peak, it is still high in many countries, especially for vulnerable groups such as disadvantaged youth”.

After three, four, five or even more years studying, young professionals expect to not only to find a job, but a well-paid and productive one. The recent crisis showed that more action is needed to reduce youth vulnerability to changing political and economic conditions: in the first quarter of 2011, the unemployment rate for young people (aged 15 to 24) was 17.4% in the OECD area compared to only 7% for adults (aged 25 and over).  So it’s time to think about solutions and “preventative” measures, which must start with education: reducing the gap between skills youth acquire at school and those needed in the labour market,and increasing the opportunities for vocational education and training.

In this sense, youth have a unique opportunity to take action and express their thoughts/challenges/solutions to the issues that matter for youth in the next OECD Global Youth Video Competition 2012. This competition invites young people to think about global issues affecting their future today, from unemployment, education and skills, to inequality and development. As a first step, the OECD is asking you  to vote on what should be the theme of the 2012 Video competition.  Tell us what you think from among the themes and the selected one will be announced on 14 December 2011 at the Conference on Youth Employment, organised by the European Youth Forum, with the support of the OECD. Then the creative process starts – young people, aged 18-25 – will be eligible to enter the competition with a 3 minute video on the chosen theme – get scripting and filming!!

After participating  in the last OECD Youth Video Competition and winning first place, I can say that it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. Sharing thoughts with policy makers, listening to live presentations of presidents, ministers, and business leaders, and meeting people from all around the globe, really encouraged me to keep working for better policies and to always keep in mind that young people need to be involved directly in the global issues that will craft our future, and take action!

To find out more about the competition, and to vote, please visit: www.oecd.org/videocontest
Get voting!

Photo credit: Desiree Quinteros.  Watch the winning video on Youtube
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Early childhood education: an international development issue

by Ian Whitman
Head of the Programme for Co-operation with Non Member Economies, OECD Directorate for Education

Quality, quality, quality – that’s what matters most. This was the overwhelming cry at the international conference I attended in Beijing this week on early childhood development, “Child Leads, Equity Counts”. Feng Xiaoxia, the Former President of the Chinese National Society of Early Childhood Education went as far as to say that without quality (in early childhood education and care), access doesn’t much matter.

Evidence bears the importance of quality out, as we find in Investing in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC):
The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education (EPPE) longitudinal study carried out in English found that the quality of pre-school setting was still exerting a positive effect on literacy and maths after the children had been at school for five years. However, the children who had gone to low-quality pre-schools were no different from those who had not gone to pre-school at all.

My fellow conference participants felt very strongly about the issue of quality and stressed that though it is not cheap, it was well worth it. It can take decades to see the results of quality early childhood education and care, which makes it difficult for some governments to invest, but we have hard evidence and real results. We are not only seeing improved school performance (PISA shows that pre-school attendance can put students ahead by one year in reading, compared to their classmates), but increased societal benefit (increased female employment which can lift families out of poverty, for example) and individual benefit (better health, less of a tendency to engage in risky behavior, and more of a likelihood to contribute to society).

Equity was another issue close to their hearts. China currently has 96 million children under the age of six. In 1978, there were 8 million kindergarteners; in 2009 the number tripled to 26.9 million (with 56% coverage). There is a need to ensure the same early childhood services for migrant children as for others. Currently, only 20% of migrant children benefit from these services, whereas 70% is the average for China.

“Mobile ger-kindergartens” is one of the solutions being used in Mongolia (as well as in China). These kindergartens move and follow herder populations. Less expensive to construct and maintain, they are meeting the needs of nomadic populations by setting themselves up near 10-15 herder families during the summer months. They enroll 12-15 children at a time for three to four weeks, and then move on to the next location. Though this is a much-needed service, access to quality preschool education is still below the norm for herder children. Mongolia has identified this as one of their challenges in early childhood development.

As Chen Zhili, former Education Minister and Vice Chairwoman of the 11th Standing Committee of the People's National Congress and President of the All China Women's Federation so rightly put it, “Our children are the hope of nations.” Leaving this conference, I agreed and know that we are doing all we can to give them every chance. 

Learn more:
Photo: Mobile ger-kindergarten, Mongolia Credit: Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, Mongolia
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The parent factor in student performance

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Indicators and Analysis Division, Directorate for Education

The latest PISA report Let's Read Them a Story! The Parent Factor in Education has just been published.

When it comes to parents’ involvement in their child’s education, is there really such a thing as “quality time”?

Evidence from PISA, highlighted in this issue of  PISA in Focus, suggests there is. Parents who are concerned that they don’t have enough time–or, for that matter, expertise–to help their children succeed at school can find some comfort in knowing that it doesn’t take a PhD or unlimited hours to make a difference in their children’s school career. What it does take is genuine interest and active engagement in their children’s lives.

For example, students whose parents reported, through a PISA questionnaire, that they had read a book with their child “every day or almost every day” or “once or twice a week” during their child’s first year of primary school had markedly higher reading scores in PISA 2009, when those children were 15, than students whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child “never or almost never” or only “once or twice a month”. That difference in score averaged 25 points–or well over half a year of formal schooling–across the 14 countries with comparable data.

Often, differences in performance at school are strongly associated with students’ socio-economic backgrounds. But in this case, even when students from similar backgrounds are compared, those whose parents regularly read books to them when they were in the first year of primary school score 14 points higher, on average, than students whose parents did not.

When it comes to helping older children, parents don’t need to worry about their own abilities in, say, geometry or chemistry. PISA findings show that even such non-academic parent-child activities as “discussing books, films or television programmes”, “discussing how well children are doing at school”, “eating main meals together around the table” and “spending time just talking with one’s children” are also associated with better student reading performance in school. For example, according to PISA results, students whose parents discuss political or social issues with them either weekly or daily score 28 points higher in reading, on average, than those whose parents discuss these issues less often or not at all. And when socio-economic background is taken into account, the score point advantage drops, but remains important–16 score points–and is seen in all participating countries and economies, except Hungary.

In effect, PISA results confirm what most parents know intuitively: children–of all ages–benefit from their parents’ active interest in them. And PISA also shows that it’s not the quantity of time that makes the difference, but rather the depth of parental engagement.

For more on PISA, go to the website: http://www.pisa.oecd.org/

Photo credit: Neeta Lind
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Finding your way in the higher education marketplace

by Richard Yelland
Head of the Education Management and Infrastructure Division, OECD Directorate for Education

Suppose you are running a business with global brand recognition and tens of thousands of customers trying to buy your product. You can choose to remain exclusive and put the price up, or you might want to increase production to meet demand.

If you are running a university you might well find that your Government won’t allow you to do either of these things. Indeed, they might not even allow you to charge for your product at all. At the same time some of your competitors benefit from public subsidies and strong support for their export efforts.

As higher education has grown and expanded over the past fifty years its international dimension has become stronger. OECD data show that the numbers of students attending institutions outside their country of origin tripled between 1985 and 2008 and expectations are that the market will continue to grow.

It is however a very asymmetrical market, dominated by some strong providers, mostly in English-speaking countries: the United States in terms of sheer numbers and Australia in terms of the proportion of its student body who come from abroad. Moreover it is a volatile market, where public perceptions can be quickly swayed by relatively minor incidents. Changes in Government policy on immigration or institutional funding can make a big difference.

The challenges to those who responsible for strategic planning in universities and other higher education institutions are therefore considerable. OECD’s Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE)  has been running a series of focus groups to explore some of the issues and the conclusions will be presented at a conference at Lund University in Sweden in mid-December. The aim is to learn from each other and to come up with some useful advice for institutions as they plan their approaches.

And if those who are responsible for the supply side are struggling to keep up with developments, spare a thought for the students and prospective students who make up the demand side. Some countries will provide scholarships and other help, while elsewhere they have to fend for themselves. The quality and relevance of higher education programmes and institutions is far from transparent even at national level. Internationally, where students are prey to misleading - and sometimes fraudulent - advertising, and where their only guide is rankings largely based on research outcomes, it is very hard for them to reach the right decisions about their futures.

As we traverse the second decade of the twenty-first century there is more than ever a need for us to focus not only on the quality of higher education, but also on being transparent about it and on communicating what we know.

Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE)
More about the OECD/IMHE project "Managing Internationalisation"
Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO)
Conference "Strategic Management of Internationalisation in Higher Education", Lund University, Sweden

Photo: Lund University House, credit: Kennet Ruona
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