Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 26 January 2020

Now is the time to care more about what happens inside classrooms

Many of today’s highest-performing education systems have only recently attained their top positions

Lack of access to education in the past is a part of the explanation as to why women are now outnumbering and outperforming men in academics. Reem Falaknaz / The National
Lack of access to education in the past is a part of the explanation as to why women are now outnumbering and outperforming men in academics. Reem Falaknaz / The National

In hundreds of schools the world over, an exercise is undertaken once every three years to measure how well students understand certain subjects and how proficient they are in key areas of learning. Fifteen-year-olds are tested on their grasp of maths, science, reading and their skills to meet real-life challenges. It is natural that parents and educators are keen to see students score well in this assessment and for the schools to earn a high ranking in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). In fact, the target of the UAE National Agenda 2021 is to be among the 20 highest-performing countries.

This year, more than 10 million students represented in the latest global assessment of Pisa were unable to complete even the most basic reading tasks that would normally be mastered by the age of 10. And just one in 10 students were able to distinguish between fact and opinion based on implicit cues, which is not easy but it is what the digital world around us is all about.

In the UAE that number was less than one in 20 students, or 4.8 per cent, although that was up from 3 per cent in 2015 and 2.2 per cent in 2012. In most countries, including the UAE, there has also been limited improvement in learning outcomes over the last decade, even though expenditure on schooling rose by more than 15 per cent.

In the Chinese provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, which come out top in Pisa, the 10 per cent most socially disadvantaged students showed better reading skills than the average student and they did as well as the 10 per cent most advantaged students in the UAE because they have been able to attract the right talent.

Many of today’s highest-performing education systems have only recently attained their top positions. Estonia has steadily advanced to the top, despite the fact that its expenditure per student remains about 30 per cent lower than the average country assessed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which runs Pisa.

Portugal rose in the league table, despite being severely hit by the financial crisis. And some low-performing countries saw remarkable improvements, such as Albania, Moldova and Peru. Brazil or Turkey might look somewhat less impressive but Turkey was able to double the number of 15-year-olds enrolled in school, from 36 per cent to 73 per cent between 2003 and 2018. Sweden has shown a trend of improvement since 2012 that reversed earlier declines. So it can be done.

The latest Pisa figures devote a lot of attention to social inclusion. The reason for this is simple: children from wealthier families will always find open doors to a successful life but children from poor families often have just one single chance in life – and that is a good school that gives them the opportunity to develop their potential. Those who miss that boat rarely catch up, because education opportunities later in life tend to reinforce early education outcomes. The reality is that in many countries, the postcode remains a powerful predictor for the success of students and schools, so countries need to work harder to attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms.

In France, Germany, Hungary, Peru and the Slovak Republic, the gap in reading between the 10 per cent most advantaged and the 10 per cent most disadvantaged students was equivalent to well over four school years of schooling. But again, the achievement gap varies hugely across countries. In some countries we can barely see performance differences among students and schools from wealthy and poor backgrounds.

In the UAE, a first look at the data suggests a huge performance advantage of private schools, but that advantage shrinks by half when considering the social context of schools and students. So under-performance in the UAE is not just an issue for poor students from poor neighbourhoods but for many students, in many schools, from many neighbourhoods. And in the same vein, the world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated nations and poor and badly-educated ones. That should give us hope.

So where to start? If students believe success in education is just about the talent they are born with, why should they study hard? And yet that belief is held by the majority of students in the UAE, perhaps because students are given too many excuses for not performing well.

What is so interesting is the robust cross-country correlation between learning outcomes and the extent to which students have that growth mindset – in other words, in high-performing education systems, students tend to hold the belief that investing effort in learning is the key to success, rather than the belief that intelligence is inherited.

Students with a growth mindset were also more likely to persist in finishing difficult tasks, had greater confidence in their abilities and were less likely to be afraid of failure.

Children from wealthier families will always find open doors to a successful life, but children from poor families often have just one single chance in life – and that is a good school that gives them the opportunity to develop their potential.

It is also worth paying more attention to social and emotional outcomes and career aspirations. Think about gender: most school systems have done well in helping boys and girls perform equally well in math and science. But the share of boys who want to work in information technology-related jobs is seven times larger than the share of girls. And more than one in four boys said they expect to work as an engineer or science professional, while fewer than one in six girls said so, even when boys and girls did similarly well on the science test.

Pisa also shows that disadvantaged students tend to hold lower career ambitions even when they perform equally well than their privileged peers. Only in a few countries: Canada, Chile, Korea, Singapore, Ukraine and the United States were students’ educational expectations both ambitious and aligned with their academic performance.

So yes, the challenges are tough, but Pisa shows lots of examples where schools and education systems address these challenges successfully. The UAE has done well in integrating its school system into a coherent national architecture. Now is the time to care more about what happens inside classrooms. The task for policy and practice is not to make the impossible possible, but to make the possible attainable.

Andreas Schleicher is the director the director for OECD’s directorate of education and skills

Updated: December 15, 2019 07:55 PM

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