Education Results Present a Wake-up Call to Countries

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ImageThe Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 survey results were released today by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  PISA tests 15 year olds in reading, math and science.

Pisa 2009 results focus on reading, as they did in 2000 when the tests were first applied. In reading, as the OECD reports, Korea and Finland are the highest performing OECD countries, with mean scores of 539 and 536 points.  However, as noted in today's New York Times, Shanghai-China outperforms them by a significant margin, with a mean score of 556.  Top-performing economies in reading include Hong Kong-China (533), Singapore (526), Canada (524), New Zealand (521), Japan (520), Australia (515) and the Netherlands (508).

At the US release of the PISA results in Washington DC, which I was fortunate to attend today, Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría, discussed the importance of the results in terms of competitiveness and growth. 


Secretary General Gurría emphasized the characteristics of successful performers:

  • they tend to prioritize education
  • vocational schooling is delayed (he specifically mentioned the case of Poland, which is a successful reformer managing to improve significantly its PISA score by delaying tracking; see our recent report.)
  • they select the best teachers
  • schools have autonomy, backed up by accountability
  • they promote equity


The Secretary General presented Secretary Duncan with a specially commissioned report, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States.  Secretary Duncan embraced the report and sees international experience as crucial for reinvigorating the US education system.  He called US performance “stagnant” and noted the need to reduce the achievement gap within the country and between the US and top performers.

But since the report is about performance, then which countries have sustained high levels of achievement over time and done the most to improve their scores?  Since the 2009 report is focused on reading, as was the 2000 study, then let’s limit ourselves to that subject.  Between 2000 and 2009, the highest increase in scores has been recorded by the following countries:

Peru  43 point increase (from 327 in 2000 to 370 in 2009)
Chile  40 points (from 409 to 449)
Albania  36 points (349 to 385)
Indonesia  31 points (371 to 402)
Latvia  26 points (458 to 484)
Israel   22, (452 to 474)
Poland   21, (479 to 500)
Portugal  19, (470 to 489)
Liechtenstein  17, (482 to 499)
Brazil   16, (396 to 412)

But since the last round of PISA in 2006, the top improvers are:

Qatar  60, (312 to 372)
Serbia  41, (401 to 442)
Israel  35, (439 to 474)
Kyrgyzstan 29, (285 to 314)
Romania 29, (396 to 424)
Colombia 28, (385 to 413)
Bulgaria 27, (402 to 429)
Argentina 25, (374 to 398)
Tunisia  23, (380 to 404)
Greece  23, (460 to 483)

These are impressive gains from some middle income countries.  Many of the improving economies are starting from a low base; such as Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Peru and Tunisia.  But some countries, including so-called “developing” and transition economies are making improvements from a higher base.  For instance, Chile, Poland, Romania and Serbia.  And since 2006 two economies are starting to turn around a decline: Argentina and Bulgaria. 

This provides hope to many aspiring countries.  Yet, there are challenges remaining for countries to go from “most improved” to high performer.  After all, what it takes to advance from the most basic level is almost certainly not what it will take to make further advances.  Nor to become a sustained high performer. 


Image credit: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development


Harry A. Patrinos

Senior Adviser, Education

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