06 February 2017
Long reads

Debunking education myths

International comparisons are never easy and they aren’t perfect, but what they can do is to debunk some of the persistent myths that can grow up about what makes a successful education system.

International tests such as PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) hold up a mirror to show countries how they are performing compared with other school systems. They also show how many false assumptions there can be that stand in the way of educational improvement.

Will the poor always do badly in school results? Is deprivation destiny?

Teachers all around the world struggle to make up for social disadvantage in their classrooms. Some believe that deprivation is destiny. But the PISA results show that this is false – and that there is nothing inevitable about how well or badly different social groups are likely to achieve.

In 2012, the 10 per cent most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai showed better mathematics results in PISA than the 10 per cent most privileged students in the United States and several European countries. Similarly, in the 2015 PISA assessment, the 10 per cent most disadvantaged students in Vietnam or Estonia compared favourably to the average student in the OECD area.

Children from similar social backgrounds can show very different performance levels, depending on the school they go to or the country they live in. Education systems where disadvantaged students succeed are able to moderate social inequalities. They tend to attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms and the most capable school leaders to the most disadvantaged schools, thus challenging all students with high standards and excellent teaching.

Clearly, all countries have excellent students, but few have enabled all students to excel. Achieving greater equity in education is not only a social justice imperative, it is also a way to use resources more effectively, ensure that all individuals can contribute to their societies and promote social cohesion. Not least, how we educate the most vulnerable children provides a deep reflection on who we are.

Do immigrants lower the overall performance of school systems?

In recent years, many thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers – including an unprecedented number of children – have braved rough seas and barbed-wire barricades to find safety and a better life elsewhere. Are our schools prepared to help immigrant students integrate into their new communities? And will they succeed in preparing all students for a world in which people are willing and able to collaborate with others from different cultural backgrounds? Many believe that is simply not possible.

But consider the following: results from PISA show no relationship between the share of students with an immigrant background in a country and the overall performance of students. Even students with the same migration history and background show very different performance levels. There is some impact from the levels of education before migrating, but where immigrant students settle seems to matter even more.

In Australia, first generation Chinese immigrants perform at 502 score points, similarly to their Australian peers, but the children of Chinese immigrants perform at 592 score points, well over two school-years ahead of their Australian peers. In other words, they were able to draw more value from the Australian school system than Australian students without an immigration background, even after accounting for the social background of students.

Is success in education all about spending more money?

For countries that currently invest less than US $35 000 per student (AUD $46 487) between the age of six and 15, PISA shows an important relationship between spending per student and the quality of learning outcomes. However, for countries beyond that spending level, and that includes Australia as well as most OECD countries, there is no relationship between spending per student and the average student performance in countries.

The world seems no longer divided between rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly educated ones and success is no longer about how much money is spent, but about how that money is spent.

Will small class sizes always mean better results?

It might be politically popular, but there is no clear evidence to show that cutting class sizes is the best way of improving results. It might be that cutting class sizes means diverting funds that would have been better spent elsewhere, such as paying for better teachers.

The highest performing education systems in PISA tend to systematically prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes, that is, wherever they have to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, they go for the latter. Rather than in small classes, they invest in attractive teacher working conditions and careers, ongoing professional development and a balance in working time that allows teachers to contribute to their profession and to grow in their careers.

It may still be that reducing class size opens up opportunity for new and more effective educational practice and that, everything else being equal, smaller classes lead to better outcomes. But that is often the wrong question to ask, because countries can spend their money only once. Reducing classes means that less money is available to raise teacher salaries, provide teachers with opportunities to do other things than teaching, increasing student learning time, etcetera. 

That is indeed where the problem lies. The result of lowered class sizes has been that less money was left to make smart investments, most notably in recruiting better teachers and rewarding them better. Between 2005 and 2014 salaries of teachers in upper secondary education increased by only 1 per cent in real terms, and decreased in one-third of the OECD countries. Upper-secondary teachers are now paid only 89 per cent of what other tertiary-educated workers get.

Will more learning time add to better results?

School systems differ widely in how much time students spend learning, particularly after school. Within each country, more learning time for a subject tends to be associated with better learning outcomes in that subject. So learning time matters and policy makers and parents asking to extend school days have a point. However, the relationship turns the other way round when studying this across countries – that is, countries with longer classroom hours and learning time often do worse in PISA.

It is easy to resolve that puzzle: Learning outcomes are always the product of the quantity and quality of learning opportunities. If we keep the quality of the instructional environment constant, adding more time will yield better results. But if we improve the quality of instruction, we can achieve better results without increasing student learning time.

For instance, in Japan and Korea, students score similarly in science; however, in Japan, students spend about 41 hours per week learning (28 hours at school and 14 after school) all subjects combined, whereas in Korea they spend 50 hours (30 hours at school and 20 after school). In Tunisia and in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong, the four provinces that participated in the PISA 2015 assessment, students spend 30 hours per week learning at school, and 27 hours after school, but the average science score in the Chinese provinces is 531 points whereas in Tunisia it is 367 points. These differences may be indicative, among other things, of the quality of a school system, the necessity of combining learning time with effective teaching, or of whether students can learn informally after school.

Most parents would like to see their kids in schools where they can learn solid academic knowledge and skills but also have enough time to participate in non-academic activities –such as sports, theatre or music – that develop their social and emotional skills and contribute to their wellbeing. So it is always a question of balance. Looked at it that way, Australia, but also the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Japan, Macao (China), the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland provide a good balance between learning time and academic performance.

Is educational success about inherited talent?

The writings of many educational psychologists have fostered a widespread notion that student achievement is mainly a product of inherited intelligence, not hard work.

PISA didn't only test what 15-year-olds know and can do with what they know, it also asked students what they believe is making them successful. In many countries, students were quick to blame everyone but themselves. In 2012, more than three-quarters of the students in France, an average performer on the PISA test, said the course material was simply too hard, two-thirds said the teacher did not get students interested in the material, and half said their teacher did not explain the concepts well or they were just unlucky.

The results are very different for Singapore. Students there believe they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed. The fact that students in some countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling the values that foster success in education.

One of the most powerful findings from PISA is that in most of these countries, where students expect to have to work hard to achieve, virtually all students reach consistently high performance standards. And one of the most interesting patterns that I observed has been the gradual move from a system in which students of different ability were streamed into different types of secondary schools, to a system in which all students now go to secondary schools with curriculums set to much the same high level of cognitive demand.

In contrast, where teachers don’t believe that pupils can develop and extend themselves through hard work, they may feel guilty pressing students who they perceive to be less capable to achieve at higher levels. A comparison between school marks and performance of students in PISA also suggests that teachers often expect less of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds even if the students show similar levels of achievement. And those students and their parents may expect less, too. This is a heavy burden for education systems to bear, and it is unlikely that school systems will achieve performance parity with the best-performing countries until they accept that, with enough effort and support, all children can achieve at very high levels.

Is it about recruiting top graduates into teaching?

One of the most frequent claims I have heard from people trying to explain poor learning outcomes in their country is that their young people who go into teaching are drawn from lower-ability graduates, while high-performing countries are able to attract the highest-ability graduates into careers in teaching.

It sounds plausible, since the quality of a school system will never exceed the quality of teaching. And, surely, top school systems pay much attention to how they select their staff. They work hard to improve the performance of teachers who are struggling, they provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice, and they establish intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers.

But, again, does all that mean that in those countries the top graduates chose to become teachers rather than lawyers, doctors or engineers? It is hard to find out because it is very difficult to obtain comparative evidence on the skills of teachers. But our Survey of Adult Skills tested the skills of countries’ workforces – including teachers – in key areas such as numeracy, literacy and problem-solving.

Using these data I compared the numeracy and literacy skills of teachers with those of other college and university graduates. So what did the results show? In short, among the countries with comparable data, there is no single country where, based on their average numeracy skills, teachers are in the top third of workers with a college degree; and there is no country where they are among the bottom third of college graduates. In fact, teachers tend to come out remarkably similarly to the average worker with a college or university degree. There are just a few exceptions: In Japan and Finland, for example, the average teacher has better numeracy skills than the average college graduate, while in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, the Slovak Republic and Sweden it is the other way round.

But we can look at this another way. While, in each country, teachers tend to score similarly to college graduates on our numeracy test, the numeracy skills of the workforce themselves differ substantially across countries, and so the numeracy skills of teachers vary too. Teachers in Japan and Finland come out on top, followed by their Flemish (Belgium), German, Norwegian and Dutch colleagues, while teachers in Italy, the Russian Federation, Spain, Poland, Estonia and the United States come out at the bottom. And researchers like Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek did find an important relationship between the skills of teachers, as measured by the Survey of Adult Skills, and the learning outcomes of students.

Unless countries have the luxury of hiring teachers from Finland or Japan, they need to think hard about making teaching a well-respected profession and a more attractive career choice  - both intellectually and financially - and invest more in teacher development and competitive employment conditions.

They can also learn from high-performing education systems to make sure that teachers are treated like independent, responsible professionals, with access to training.

And, perhaps most crucially, many countries need to do better in attracting the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms to ensure that every student benefits from high-quality teaching. The alternative is clear: a downward spiral – from lowered standards for entry, leading to lowered confidence in the profession, resulting, in turn, in more prescriptive teaching and thus less personalisation in learning experiences – that will risk driving the most talented teachers out of the profession, that will then lower the skills of the teacher population.

Is selection by ability the way to raise standards?

For centuries educators have wondered how they should design educational school systems so that they best serve different student needs. Some countries have adopted non-selective and comprehensive school systems that seek to provide all students with similar opportunities, leaving it to each teacher and school to cater to the full range of student abilities, interests and backgrounds. Other countries respond to diversity by grouping or tracking students, whether between schools or between classes within schools, with the aim of serving students according to their academic potential and/or interests in specific programmes. Conventional wisdom has it that the former serves equity, while the latter fosters quality and excellence. The assumption underlying selection policies somehow is that students’ talents will develop best when students reinforce each other’s interest in learning, and create an environment that is more conducive to effective teaching.

And yet, PISA shows no trade-off between the quality of learning outcomes and equity in the distribution of educational opportunities, the highest performing education systems combine both. And none of the countries with a high degree of stratification – whether in the form of tracking, streaming, or grade repetition – is among the top performing education systems or among the systems with the highest share of top performers.

Is equipping students for the future about offering new school subjects?

Many countries are expanding school curriculums with new school subjects. As one example, a trend reinforced by the financial crisis has been to teach students financial skills. But interestingly, results from PISA show no relationship between the prevalence of financial education and financial literacy. In fact, some of those education systems where students performed best in the PISA assessment of financial literacy teach no financial literacy at all but invest their efforts squarely on developing deep mathematics skills.

More generally, in top performing education systems the curriculum is not mile-wide and inch-deep, but tends to be rigorous – that is provides a high level of cognitive demand. It’s also more focused – with a few things that are taught well and in great depth and in a way that is coherent.

Andreas Schleicher says PISA data suggest ‘teachers often expect less of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds even if the students show similar levels of achievement’.

Consider your class: Do you have the same high expectations of all your students?

Consider the tasks you set: Do they challenge all students and extend their thinking?

Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher is Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.


  • A rigorous focus on shifting from telling to asking. A deep pedagogical understanding of the need to activate the learner as co-designer of learning with intellectual stretch, engagement and self-efficacy.

    07 February 2017
  • I really like the observation: “The highest performing education systems in PISA tend to systematically prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes, ... Rather than in small classes, they invest in attractive teacher working conditions and careers, ongoing professional development and a balance in working time that allows teachers to contribute to their profession and to grow in their careers.” Perhaps the problem is that the former is simpler, while we haven’t yet worked out a good way to do the latter.

    14 February 2017
  • Fantastic article that cuts through some of the myths about education. It provides real insight about why some countries do so well and how we can improve.

    14 February 2017
  • On the whole excellent comments. One word of caution. One of the curses of education is teaching to pass exams rather than teaching understanding. This is particularly prevalent in maths/science. There is a need to attract the best people to education. It is rare at present.

    14 February 2017
  • Thought provoking article based on reality. The article has helped me understand each and every point that has been mentioned as on day to day basis I have experienced them.
    I wish that teachers are selected with care and are given due honor so that at no cost we allow mediocrity to set in any school.

    18 February 2017
  • It would seem to me that interpretation of the PISA data comes down to “mindset” (C. Dweck) “where students expect to have to work hard to achieve, virtually all students reach consistently high performance standards.” Students with a hard work (growth) mindset will achieve high standards. I suspect an inclination to work hard is instilled through necessity from a mix of poverty and hardship, competition and cultural or social expectation. I wonder if improving the quality of instruction, without any social or cultural change, can turn those students arhound who do not have an inclination to work hard.

    20 February 2017

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