Got any good ideas about how to improve education?

by Pablo Zoido
Analyst, Early Childhood and Schools Division, Directorate for Education

Do you have an idea about how to improve quality and equity in education in your country or region, but need some time and support to research that idea? You might find what you’re looking for through the OECD’s new Thomas J. Alexander Fellowship Programme.

In effect, the OECD is holding a “competition for ideas” on education policy. As Andreas Schleicher, deputy director of the OECD’s education directorate, puts it, the Fellowship “provides an opportunity to identify and nourish the best available ideas”. The Fellowship, named after a dynamic and admired former head of the OECD’s education team and funded by the Open Society Foundations, offers a chance for qualified candidates to work with international experts on education policy, including during a stay at the OECD’s headquarters in Paris.

Prospective candidates can come from any field of study and from anywhere in the world; those from emerging economies are strongly encouraged to apply. Only online applications will be accepted and proposals will be judged based on their originality, promise and scientific rigour.

We look forward to hearing your ideas!


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The more the merrier

by Tracey Burns
Analyst, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education

Who is responsible for successes and failures of schools? A new Education Working Paper says  involving parents and students can help improve education systems by including them in accountability and school achievement processes. The traditional approach where central government provides the resources and made the majority of decisions has given way in many OECD countries to greater autonomy and control over decision-making for schools and local governments. This greater freedom has developed hand in hand with the rise of benchmarking and international assessments, and has made accountability a hot topic for policy makers and communities alike.

But what about other voices? Parents, community leaders, and others are taking an increasingly active role in governing their local schools. This trend, called “multiple accountability”, aims to provide more localized and nuanced feedback and guidance that schools and education systems can use in addition to standardized test results. It is a promising concept that builds on successes from other public policy areas such as environment and health. There is also fascinating evidence from the business world that suggests that enabling shareholders in private corporations to vote on the pay policy of the company’s executive officers appears to lead to large increases in the company’s market value, profitability and long-term performance. These “Say-on-Pay” regulations, promoted in the US and UK, allow more people within the corporation to have a say in decisions – and crucially, this shared responsibility can result in benefits to the whole company.

In education, multiple accountability is still a fairly new concept, and the amount of available research on how to make it work is modest. Three lessons, however, can be learned from existing models in The Netherlands and the United Kingdom:
  1. You must identify the key stakeholders. This is more difficult than it sounds, and schools must make efforts to involve less powerful or inactive voices.
  2. You must build capacity for this new role. Some stakeholders might not have the knowledge and language needed and may inadvertently be excluded in accountability processes. Providing them with the tools to interpret and analyse benchmarking data and other evaluation processes (e.g., value added measures) is an important part of giving them the expertise they need to take part.
  3. You must be ready and open to assess your school’s quality and processes . School leaders play a key role in empowering staff to be involved and open to parents and members of the local community.  
Including the voices of parents and other stakeholders could be one of the most relevant shifts for education policy today. But unforeseen challenges may arise: it turns out that market mechanisms such as school competitiveness and parental choice in education can actually be disincentives for making multiple accountability work. In a competitive market, transparent discussion of the weaknesses of a school can threaten the image and competitiveness of the institution. In such contexts, it is strategically important to highlight the successes and avoid talking about room for improvement. The real question is: which approach is best-suited to improving our schools and education systems?

Education Working papers
OECD'S Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)
Photo credit: Talk in colours speech bubbles /Shutterstock

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How “green” are our children?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
As the threats to the environment become ever more urgent, are our children learning what they need to know to make environmentally responsible decisions now and later on? The latest issue of PISA in Focus finds that while most 15-year-olds have some understanding of environmental issues and feel responsible towards the environment, those without some scientific knowledge consistently underestimate the amount of time needed to find solutions to pressing environmental problems.

When tested on their understanding of the science of environmental issues, and when asked about their attitudes towards these issues, large majorities of 15-year-olds across OECD countries not only knew about such issues as air pollution, the loss of plant and animal species, and water shortages, but also felt a strong sense of personal and social responsibility towards these issues. For example, an average of 92% of students believes that air pollution represents a serious concern for themselves or others in their country, and over 80% of students feel the same about energy shortages, the extinction of plants and animals, and the clearing of forests. Some 78% and 76% of students, respectively, feel the same about water shortages and nuclear waste.

But the numbers were nearly inverted when it came to students’ sense of optimism that solutions to these problems would be found in the next 20 years. On average across OECD countries, only 15% or fewer of students believe that there will be improvements with respect to nuclear waste, the extinction of plants and animals, and the clearing of forests for other land use; 16% of students feel the same about air pollution, only 18% are optimistic about tackling water shortages, and 21% feel the same about energy shortages.

The majority of students across OECD countries reported that school was their main source of information about the environment, although families also play a key role in forming students’ attitudes and opinions about environmental issues. Students’ often share their parents’ sense of responsibility and optimism towards the environment, although the strength of this correlation varies across countries, and is stronger when it comes to feelings of optimism than with a sense of personal responsibility.

Interestingly, the extent to which students feel optimistic that solutions to environmental problems will be found over the next 20 years was negatively related to student performance in environmental science: the lower their scores in environmental science, the more optimistic students were that the situation will improve over the next two decades. This may be due to the fact that students who lack a deep understanding about environmental issues may be more optimistic, or that students who are optimistic about the future of the environment have less incentive to become more knowledgeable about environmental science.

In short, PISA finds that making the link between environmental science studies at school and how they apply to the “real world” can help to foster a sense of responsibility towards the environment. But undue optimism—or pessimism—about the environment could stymie students from using their knowledge and understanding to positive effect.

For more information on PISA:
PISA in Focus No. 21: Do today's 15-year-olds feel environmentally responsible?

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What the D in OECD stands for

by Barbara Ischinger
Director for Education

Did you know that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development helped to lay the groundwork for the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals? Even though Development is part of our name, there are many people who don’t realise just how much of our resources are devoted to developing economies and not only to the development of the OECD’s 34 member countries.

The focus of this year’s International Economic Forum on Africa, held at the OECD’s Paris headquarters in early October, was youth employment, but this issue cannot be separated from another one just as important:  education. The African Economic Outlook 2012 notes that in Egypt, for example, about 1.5 million young people are unemployed at the same time that private-sector firms cannot fill 600 000 vacancies. And in South Africa, there are 3 million young people who are neither in education nor employed and 600 000 unemployed university graduates, yet 800 000 jobs are vacant. At the Forum itself, I heard many participants ask themselves whether they were equipping their students with the skills their economies needed.

This is exactly where the OECD’s expertise in collecting and analysing data can help. Already, many of the countries and economies that participate in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are in the developing world; but we think all countries would benefit from even greater participation by developing countries. By participating in PISA, countries can see whether the skills they are teaching their 15-year-olds are relevant to “real life”. They can also learn from other countries’ experiences how to improve their own education systems, and can benchmark their progress over time. The assessment, itself, benefits by gaining a deeper understanding of student performance in a broader range of countries and cultural contexts.

We have completed a review of Egypt’s system of higher education and have also reviewed the education systems of South Africa, Gabon and Mauritius. These in-depth analyses – conducted in close collaboration with local actors, regional organisations and other international partners – can guide countries in reforming their education policies so that students leave school with the skills needed to participate productively in the economy. We also stand ready to work with our partners – in Africa and elsewhere – to build stronger links between labour markets and education systems. That would help to avoid the situation, seen in so many countries, where universities train students to become civil servants when what the country or region really needs are engineers and health workers – and also people with the mid-level trade, technical and professional skills that can be acquired through well-designed vocational programmes. At the moment, vocational education accounts for only 5% of training among African youth.

As the 2015 target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals approaches, the international community has begun to consider a framework for goals beyond 2015. For the first set of goals, progress in education is measured by access; I hope that future goals will complement such measures by looking at learning outcomes. Again, this is one of the OECD’s specialties, and we’re keen to offer our work and expertise to an even larger number of countries. I thought you’d want to know.

OECD Development home page
The OECD and the Millennium Development Goals
OECD Strategy on Development
The OECD Strategy on Development: Giving fresh impetus to a core mission
2012 International Economic Forum on Africa
OECD Skills Strategy
Photo credit: Orphan students in Swaziland / Shutterstock
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Women leaders can break the mould

Indira Samarasekera, President of the University of Alberta  in Canada, was one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE) Conference, held at OECD headquarters in Paris this past September. Marilyn Achiron, Editor at the OECD’s Education Directorate, spoke with her about a variety of subjects:

Marilyn Achiron: What unique talents do women have as school leaders, and how can we achieve gender equality in school leadership positions?
Indira Samarasekera: At the risk of overgeneralising, women tend to network more, and perhaps listen more, to a variety of stakeholders. Men have tended to have to follow the mould of someone before them; but women can break the mould. That’s the advantage of women leaders.
Gender equality in school leadership has often been difficult to achieve because of the challenges of women having children. The question is: How do you support that? It requires that people in the university be thoughtful and mindful. There were leaders in my university who sought me out and put me in leadership positions, heads of committees who helped to put me where I am today. They went out of their way to find people like me—I was only an assistant professor, for goodness sake. I think gender equality can be achieved without overnight social change, but you need thoughtful men and women leaders.

MA: The latest edition of Education at a Glance highlights the fact that young women are now more likely than young men to graduate from upper secondary school. What is your reaction to that finding?
IS:  I worry about it. For the longest time we worried about the fact that there weren’t enough women; now we’re worried that we’re losing young men. The potential social consequences of that are huge. In a society where innovation and higher education provide access to high-wage jobs, we have huge numbers of young men who will be left behind. We need gender parity for all those who need education. Young men develop later; as a result, they are not as prepared to compete on university entrance exams as young women are. But they catch up quickly later. We have to consider high school grades with a pinch of salt. We have to find a way, without diluting the quality of education, to transfer young men to university, maybe after two years in a community college. Community colleges can be a kind of bridge between high school and higher education. Two years can make a big difference.

MA: In your keynote address, you spoke passionately against university rankings.
IS:  Rankings are absolutely detrimental, and it’s very questionable what value they add to society. They don’t recognise teaching, they foster homogenisation, there are no assessments of publications and the effect of research on society, they completely discount valuable research. In fact, these rankings promote the “caste culture” in science. They want everyone to be Harvard, but even Harvard is having trouble being Harvard because they can’t afford it anymore. To their credit, though, rankings have focused the spotlight on high-quality universities. But those who are doing the rankings are not accountable to anyone; they’re there to make money.

General Conference 2012: "Attaining and Sustaining Mass Higher Education"
OECD Skills Strategy
Education at a Glance:
Visit our interactive portal on skills:
See related blog post: Welcome to my world. Won’t you come on in? by ValĂ©rie Lafon
Photo credit: ©OECD
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Are countries educating to protect against unemployment?

by Dirk Van Damme
Division Head, Innovation and Measuring Progress (IMEP) and Head of Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

More people than ever before now reach a level of educational attainment equivalent to upper secondary education. The available evidence is very conclusive: this level of education can be considered a minimum level to ensure a job and a living wage. As the latest issue of the OECD’s Education Indicators in Focus details, the difference in unemployment risks in OECD countries between individuals with and without an upper secondary qualification is significant. In 2010, across OECD countries, 19.1% of 25-34 year-olds without an upper secondary qualification were unemployed, compared with 9.8% of young adults of the same age who had an upper secondary qualification. And without an upper secondary qualification, the risk of poverty is looming: some 27% of people without an upper secondary education earn less than half the median income – around 10 percentage points more than the proportion of people who do have that level of education.

The negative effects of lacking an upper secondary qualification are excacerbated during the crucial phase of transition from education to work. Among NEETs  (not employed nor in education and training) in 2010, there were 8 percentage points more 20-24 year-olds without an upper secondary education than 20-24 year-olds with that level of education. In 2010, in Estonia, France, Ireland, the Slovak Republic and Spain, at least 25% of the 20-24 year‑olds who had not attained an upper secondary education were neither in school nor employed.

So, countries have very good reasons to ensure that as many young people as possible graduate from upper secondary education. Over the past decades almost all OECD countries have seen dramatic increases in educational attainment from one generation to the next. The average difference between the 25-34 and 55‑64 year‑old generations in OECD countries was 20 percentage points, but in Chile, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Portugal and Spain the difference was 30 percentage points or more.

Most OECD countries – especially European ones – have increased their upper secondary graduation rates over the past ten years. As the graph above indicates, this trend coincided with declining numbers of 20-24 year-olds who were neither in education nor employed. But the start of the economic crisis in 2008 was a turning point: the size of the NEET population started to swell again. The wage gap between people with an upper secondary qualification and individuals with a tertiary level qualification increased. The evidence suggests that the crisis has accelerated job polarisation based on skills levels. People without an upper secondary qualification are highly vulnerable to unemployment, while those who have an upper secondary education are working for less money. In today’s unstable economy, an  upper secondary qualification no longer provides sufficient insurance against unemployment and low income.

For more information
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators: 
On the OECD’s Indicators of Education Systems (INES) programme, visit:
INES Programme overview brochure
Chart source: Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, Indicators A1 (
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It's high time to fight corruption in education

by Mihaylo Milovanovitch
Policy Analyst, Non-Member Economies, Directorate for Education

A modern day Bulgarian proverb says “What money can’t buy, a lot of money can”. Sadly, the truth of this popular wisdom holds well beyond the country it comes from. Sadly too, it seems to work well in schools and universities. Year by year Transparency International (TI), an international anti-corruption NGO, publishes data on the perceptions and experience of people from around the globe with corruption and in 2011 it reported that 35% of the world population considered education in their respective countries to be extremely corrupt.

There is no lack of individual examples. A media outlet in Serbia, a country in which more than quarter of the population this year is officially without a job, recently reported that getting one as a teacher would cost you 7000 EUR - the equivalent of around 22 average salaries. Students are ready to pay too. To succeed in school in Kyrgyzstan, they better be ready (and able) to pay their teachers. In 2006 (the last year for which there is data), 64% of all secondary students in the country were regularly paying for one-on-one private tutoring to teachers from their own schools.

Numbers are important. If you are a student or parent, however, would it really make a difference if in your country 10%, 25% or 30% of the education institutions are corrupt? Probably not. Even one corrupt school, and one fake doctor, engineer or teacher is just one too many.

Indeed, no matter how much of it there is, corruption is always a problem and corruption in education is particularly destructive. Corrupt schools and universities replicate tolerance for malpractice, undermine public trust, waste the human potential of nations and raise the cost of education (which is as an already costly sector anyway).

But, what can be done? What is it that corrupts education institutions and makes them do the opposite of the very mission they were founded to fulfil – to instil values, promote knowledge, and serve the society and its citizens? What makes parents and students initiate or agree to corruption? What policies work in preventing and eradicating corruption in education and how can they be replicated beyond national borders for the benefit of all interested countries and their students, teachers and education stakeholders? Finally, how to inform policies on preventing a problem which the ones involved have all reasons to hide?

In the course of the past year, the OECD Directorate for Education initiated the Integrity of Education Systems (INTES) project to find answers to these questions and use them in a novel approach to the problem. At its core is a focus on the causes of corruption in education – on identifying what gives individuals and education institutions the possibility, the motives and the reasons to engage in malpractice, and on how policy decisions influence corruption risk. The project is driven also by the genuine concern of countries-members of the OECD Anti-Corruption Network for Eastern Europe and Central Asia for the integrity and efficiency of their education systems and by their request for policy support
The INTES project already bears promising fruits. The first INTES country report – on Serbia – was released some days ago. It uses the new methodology to provide an assessment of the integrity of the Serbian education system, supplies evidence on its shortcomings and strengths, formulates forecasts of corruption incidence, points out areas in need of attention, and identifies solutions for closing the gaps.

Even the best of reports and the most reliable of evidence are useless without national follow-up and without ownership for subsequent policy decisions, by all sides concerned. This is particularly true for highly sensitive topics such as the one at hand. In Serbia, the report triggered considerable policy response already in its drafting phase, and led to action by the national Parliament which amended the laws on primary and on secondary education to address some of the preliminary findings, in particular those related to recruitment procedures for teachers.

It can only be hoped that further countries - OECD members and non-Members alike - will follow the Serbian example and open up their national education to an integrity “health check” and afterwards invest in a meaningful follow-up. Their students, families and education professionals deserve nothing less.

Strengthening Integrity and Fighting Corruption in Education: Serbia
Anti-Corruption Network for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Public Sector Integrity Reviews
Bribery in international business
Photo credit: Shutterstock/iofoto
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