Second chances in education

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
We all know how important the first years of formal education are; but what if the education provided during those years isn’t the best it can be? Are students forever penalised? A study in Canada that followed the 15-year-old students who had participated in PISA in 2000 and re-assessed their reading skills 9 years later shows that where education and training opportunities are readily available, deficits in initial education do not doom individuals to poor reading proficiency for the rest of their lives. In fact, on average, the young people surveyed gained 57 score points on the PISA reading scale between the ages of 15 and 24 – the equivalent of more than one year of school.

As this month’s PISA in Focus relates, those students who had performed poorly when they were 15 improved the most during the 9-year period; yet, for the most part, they were not able to fully catch up with their peers. For example, in 2000, when students who participated in PISA were 15, girls outscored boys in reading by an average of 32 points; by 2009, that gap had narrowed to 18 points. Similarly in PISA 2000, socio-economically advantaged students outscored their disadvantaged peers by more than 65 points; by 2009 that gap had narrowed to 50 points.

But one group of students did close the gap entirely: students born outside of Canada. At the age of 15, those born in Canada outperformed those born outside of the country by more than 20 score points – 545 to 524 score points, respectively. By the age of 24, young people with an immigrant background scored on a par with those who had been born in the country – around 600 score points, on average. This significant finding reflects the effectiveness of Canada’s education and integration policies.

The Canadian study identifies several ways that initial disadvantage in education can be overcome. Improvements in reading proficiency are strongly related to time spent in the education system, regardless of the educational pathways individuals follow. For instance, the improvement in reading skills among young adults who had spent 4 or more years in school after age 15 was about the same, whether they had actually completed a degree or not by age 24. Those who never completed a programme above high school, but who studied for 4 or more years after high school, improved their reading skills by 70 score points. Those who did complete a university degree improved their reading skills by 60 score points.

There is no doubt that greater proficiency at early ages is an advantage for further education and creates opportunities for additional studies that may not be as readily available to low-achievers. While taking the most common path – through secondary and then directly on to university-level education – appears to maximise improvements in reading proficiency, not everyone takes that route. The evidence in this unique study shows that learning does not end with compulsory education. Second-chance programmes and flexibility in education systems can help young people who have not had the advantages of supportive learning environments early in their lives to improve their reading proficiency later on.

For more information on PISA:
PISA in Focus No. 19: Is there really such a thing as a second chance in education? 
Photo credit:  Stack of books / Shutterstock

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Making the right connections

by Barbara Ischinger
Director for Education

It’s becoming clear to me that the crisis in youth unemployment around the world is not just one of the aftershocks of the global economic downturn, but may also have roots in education systems that are not adequately preparing students for 21st-century economies. I took that message to a regional conference on Promoting Youth Employment in North Africa,  held in Tunis in mid-July, where I presented not only the OECD Skills Strategy but also discussed the importance of improving the quality of education and of teachers, and of making quality education accessible to all.

Some 41% of 15-24 year-olds in Tunisia are unemployed – a statistic that is devastating in the present and potentially catastrophic for the future of the country and the region. In more than half of OECD countries, the rate of unemployment among young people approaches or exceeds 20%; and many of the underlying conditions are the same as those found in Tunisia. These include not only weak or stagnant economic growth, but education systems that cling to outdated policies and practices and are divorced from the labour market.

Today, education systems are expected to provide graduates not only with foundation skills and knowledge in given disciplines, but also with the skills needed to adapt to changing employment circumstances and to transfer what they have learned to different environments – what are known as generic skills. To do this effectively, there has to be more co-operation between education systems and industry. Without dialogue, education systems will not know which skills are in demand in the labour market, while prospective employers will not know whether graduates are leaving education with the skills they are looking for. Employers, too, have to be willing to invest in further training for their employees; and policy makers need to provide fiscal incentives to make it attractive for employers to do so.

But equally important, education systems need to adopt more innovative, project-focused teaching methods, particularly in science, to spark students’ curiosity and involvement. I’m encouraged to see this already happening in many places: from France’s La Main à la Pâte programme, developed by the French Academy of Sciences, which aims to reinvigorate a hands-on approach to the teaching of science in elementary schools, to the Agastya International Foundation, which dispatches mobile science labs throughout rural India, to the science education company  founded by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who died last month, whose aim is to develop and support young girls’ and boys’ interest in science, math and technology.

There are – and will be – many more of these kinds of initiatives. Their value is not only that they help to make science more meaningful to students, but they can also help to make the important connection between what students learn in school and how that knowledge and those skills can be used effectively in the wider world. And if we can also make more connections between education systems and employers, then we may be able to help more young people fulfil their potential – and help more societies prosper – by creating a better match between young people’s skills and the jobs that propel economies.

OECD Skills Strategy
Related blog posts:
“Creativity” is spelled with a “why”
Understanding youth, unemployment and skills in Africa
Photo credit: Stack of pebbles / Shutterstock
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