Lessons in education

The important matters in school education are not waiting to be discovered, they are known. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is a one-of-a-kind, global survey of student achievement in schools, conducted every three years. It is this survey that is almost always referred to when you hear of Singapore or Finland being the best in school education in the world, the remarkable performance of Estonia, the lament of countries coming out low, and many such other points of cross-country comparison of schools.

Many in education have reservations about the methodology of Pisa, and even more about the way its results are used and touted, reducing the richness and complexity of education to the absurdity of sport-like league tables. Nevertheless, Pisa is a mine of useful data, and the only widely available, rigorously conducted, periodic cross-country survey of school education, however reductionist.

Pisa 2015 results are available now; the survey focused on science, along with the usual assessment of reading, mathematics and collaborative problem-solving. Seventy-two countries participated. I will not refer to country performance comparisons, but list some other important points that emerge from Pisa 2015. These points are more useful for anyone interested in education, but usually buried behind the league tables.

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Like I wrote in my last column, the important matters in school education are not waiting to be discovered, they are known. The results of Pisa 2015 merely reaffirm the validity and importance of these matters.

First, there is clear and unambiguous reaffirmation that private schools do not perform better than public (government) schools. The relevant quote, which doesn’t need any further explanation: “On average across OECD countries and in 32 education systems, students enrolled in public schools score lower in science than students in private schools. However, after accounting for socio-economic status, in 22 education systems, students in public schools score higher than students in private schools, in eight systems they score lower than students in private schools, and on average across OECD countries, students in public schools score higher than students in private schools. This remarkable difference in results before and after accounting for socio-economic status has been consistently observed in previous rounds of Pisa.”

Second, streaming (separating) students into vocational and academic streams early and grade repetitions make schooling systems inequitable. Scores in science are poor for students streamed into pre-vocational or vocational courses. A relevant quote, “The later students are selected into different schools or education programs and the less prevalent the incidence of grade repetition, the more equitable the school system.”

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Third, “school choice” mechanisms and structures foster inequity. “Adopting school-choice practices can lead to greater socio-economic segregation among schools, which, in turn, can result in differences in teacher quality and student achievement across schools, harming disadvantaged students the most”.

Fourth, there is an emphatic reaffirmation that gender differences in performance are a result of external influences and are not innate, underlining the importance of gender-equity strategies in education.

Fifth, there is no evidence of information and communication technology (ICT) having a positive impact on learning independently. “The data show no consistent association between students’ familiarity with ICT and with performance shifts between 2012 and 2015 across countries… this (ICT) investment has not always produced obvious gains in student learning.”

Sixth, teacher qualifications and professional development influence student performance. Peer learning and collaboration are most effective and improve job satisfaction.

Seventh, autonomy of schools has positive correlation to performance, autonomy in areas ranging from admissions to curriculum.

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Eighth, performance in science improves only with high-quality teaching-learning processes within the school—pointing directly to the importance of teachers and the time spent in school. After-school programmes do not yield commensurate results. “Learning science at school may be more effective than learning science after school. While changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.”

All the quotations above are from volume II of the Pisa report. There are more interesting points in it.

The list of eight is enough to underline the most basic matter that education requires sustained work on the fundamentals, and that there are no short cuts. Let me end by going back to one such fundamental that Pisa 2015 emphasizes tellingly, and which we ignore in practice: socio-economic conditions of the child matter deeply.

We will have to do more and better in schools for the socio-economically disadvantaged, something extra than what is done for the advantaged. Quite simply, the school must become the social institution to compensate for disadvantage if we want to build a just and equitable world.