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PISA 2012: Central Europe and the Baltics are Catching Up – but Fast Enough?

Christian Bodewig's picture

9th Grade student Shahnoza School. Tajikistan When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched the results from the most recent assessment of mathematics, reading, and science competencies of 15 year-olds (the Program for international Student Assessment, PISA) last December, it held encouraging news for the European Union’s newest members. Estonia, Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic scored above the OECD average and ahead of many richer European Union neighbors. Compared to previous assessments, the 2012 scores of most countries in Central Europe and the Baltics were up (as they were in Turkey, as Wiseman et al highlighted in this blog recently). Improvements were particularly marked in Bulgaria and Romania, traditionally the weakest PISA achievers in the EU, as well as well-performing Poland and Estonia. Only Slovakia and Hungary saw declines (see chart with PISA mathematics scores).

Performance in PISA is one important indicator of Central European and Baltic countries’ prospects for economic convergence with their Western European neighbors. Why? PISA provides a picture of how well countries’ education systems provide youngsters with the important cognitive foundation skills that they need for continuous learning and productive employment in fast-changing, knowledge-based economies. And the skills of labor market entrants matter all the more at a time when countries in Central Europe and the Baltics face aging and shrinking populations. Ensuring high rates of economic growth when old-age dependency ratios rise (elderly populations expand and working age cohorts shrink) is not trivial. Countries can prepare by equipping their declining number of new labor market entrants with the right skills to promote their employment chances and productivity throughout longer working lives.
But many aging countries in Central Europe and the Baltics can do more to prepare their future workforces. Take Bulgaria and Romania, two of the fastest aging countries in the EU: in the 2012 PISA round, close to 40 percent of the 15 year-olds in Bulgaria and 37 percent in Romania were assessed as functionally illiterate. Such poor reading performance means that individuals cannot absorb information contained in the texts they read – a severe limitation in today’s labor market. But Bulgaria and Romania are not alone: in Slovakia the share is close to 30 percent and in Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, and Lithuania around 20 percent.
Much of this basic skill deficit is due to inequities in the education system. Youngsters from well-to-do backgrounds vastly outperform those facing socioeconomic disadvantage. The difference in their math, reading, and science competencies can be expressed in terms of the equivalent of years of schooling. With the exception of Estonia, disadvantaged students in Central Europe and the Baltics performed as if they had spent between two and four years less in school than their richest peers (the OECD average is two years). Improving learning of children from disadvantaged backgrounds is, therefore, a key driver of better performance overall.
In the light of the aging challenge, the 2012 PISA results suggest that education reform in much of Central Europe and the Baltics needs a fresh push. Reformers might want to take a cue from countries in East Asia. Many countries there are aging fast as well, though most are not (yet) facing Central Europe’s more severe challenge of declining populations. But they are surging ahead in preparing their future workforces. Singapore, Korea, and Japan have been among the top PISA performers for years and do relatively well in ensuring equity. Yes, these are high income countries, but income is not necessarily a predictor of success. Trailing just a few places behind is Vietnam, whose median age is growing at one of the fastest rates worldwide and its per capita income level remains below US$ 2,000. But its 15 year-olds performed almost on par with seven-times wealthier Poland and well above the OECD average.
Some of the impressive performance of East Asian students may derive from an engrained, historically rooted culture of learning and controversially long hours of study. But there are some key, transferrable lessons that East Asia’s leading PISA performers hold for Central Europe and the Baltics: For example, a strong emphasis on teachers and quality standards. Take Korea which attracts the best and brightest graduates to the teaching profession, trains them well and continuously, and grants them significant autonomy. Interestingly, teacher quality is considered more important than class size in Korea: good teachers successfully manage larger class sizes, so goes the argument, resulting in efficiency gains that allow for higher teacher salaries – a virtuous circle.
But there are also success stories closer to home: far-reaching education reforms since 1999 in Poland that delayed the early and irrevocable tracking of students into academic and vocational streams and expanded teaching hours have led to sustained and significant increases in PISA scores.
Between 2010 and 2030 Poland and Korea are both projected to see their old-age dependency ratios shoot up from below 20 to around 35 percent. That is a monumental challenge, but their success in PISA demonstrates that they are preparing for it by skilling up the younger generation.