No education system can be better than its teachers

Written by New York Times | Updated: Nov 14 2012, 08:59am hrs

In the world of international education, what Andreas Schleicher thinks matters. As a special adviser to the secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, he has the attention of policymakers in the worlds wealthiest countries. As a leading figure behind the OECDs annual review, Education at a Glance, and its Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which tests the literacy, mathematical competence and scientific knowledge of 15-year-olds around the world, he has changed the way countries think about what goes on in their classrooms.

How did you come to be a specialist in education

My background is in physics. When I entered the OECD, it was still a foreign world to measure education. We put out Education at a Glance and then PISA in the year 2000 and that really received a strong recognition by governmentsto look at the outcomes.

Presumably not everyone was pleased

No. But I think everyone accepted it. Nobodys pleased with every number. But PISA didnt get contested in a way that people would have done with many other types of comparisons. That was the idea: to build a bulletproof instrument for evaluating education.

Which our work has doneit has limited the room for political arbitrariness. Education is a field which has been quite dominated by ideologies, from the classroom to public policy. And I think this work, first of all, it shows whats possible. You can look at lots of countries who achieve what you dont achieve. It has taken away excuses from those who are complacent.

So you can say: We know this is possible.

I think you can go one step further. You can ask yourself: What is it that makes systems more successful than my own What have they done differently You can use the world as a laboratory. If you think about free schools in England, well, look at what happened to free schools in Sweden.

Education is a very inward-looking business. Schools dont have a natural tendency to look at other schools; teachers are in isolation in the classroom. And education systems have no tradition to learn from each other.

Did some countries refuse to engage with PISA at first

Yeah. A lot. But within one year, everybody turned around. First the dynamic was: It cant be done. Also, the project was eight times as expensive as our whole budget for education. But the moment people saw scientifically this can be done, the dynamics changed. Weve now got 74 countriesevery major economy is part of this. China and India are still patchy for various reasons, but they are making progress, too.

When we opened it to non-OECD. countries, many industrialised countries said, Why do we want to work with these countries They had this idea the world was neatly divided into rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly educated ones. And then suddenly they see a lot of the worlds best-performing systems are not the rich ones. They are outside the OECD, like Singapore or Hong Kong.

What were some of the biggest surprises

How much variability in performance there ishow big the gap really is in the world. But the more important finding for us was that quality and equity didnt seem to be opposing policy objectives.

Some people argue, if you want to achieve excellence you have to accept a lot of inequality. Other people say, if you focus on equity, youll end up with mediocrity. What our comparisons have shown is that success is about achieving excellencemaybe not for all, but for many. And that it is an achievable goal. Thats something that education theory didnt proclaim. Nor did we assume that would be the outcome. But it has been a very clear finding from PISA.

For example, the impact of social background on learning outcomes was not inevitable. You have countries that are very, very good at moderating the impact of social background.

The US is not one of them

Much of the professional literature comes from the English-speaking world. So it was particularly that part of the world that was most struck by the fact that in Finland there is only a 5% performance variation among schools. Every school succeeds.

Without one succeeding at the expense of another

Exactly. Another issue which I found really interesting: When we think about market mechanisms in education, we think about managing consumer demand. Its all about school choice.

And then you look at Shanghai, which also believes in market mechanisms, but has a totally different strategy. They operate on the supply side. What Shanghai has done is create incentives to attract the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms. And to get the best principals into the toughest schools. Its the same kind of philosophy, based on market mechanisms. But they turned the problem on its head and achieved a remarkable improvement in educational outcomes.

Or think about accountability. We in the West think: I test your students. If the results are poor, something terrible happens. If the results are good, then I give you more money. Now look at Finland. Their accountability system is a lot stronger. But it works laterally. It doesnt work vertically.

What does that mean

In Finland, or in Japan, you work with your fellow teachers, you work with your fellow schools, to build peer accountability into the system. In Japan, teachers work together to prepare lesson plans. They implement the lessons and then they evaluate the lessons together, and that actually creates a very strong sense of accountability. And actually its a lot tougher on you as a teacher. If every teacher in your school knows what you are doing well and what you are not doing well, this is much tougher than just having to explain some test results. In one case, you have an industrial model in mind, where its about compliance and standardisation.

You also have an industrial atmosphereantagonistic relationships and unions.

Thats the consequence. I always say every education system gets the unions it deserves. The nature of the relationship between government and unions is an outcome of the work organisation to a large extent.

Do Finland and Japan have strong teachers unions

Absolutely. But they have unions that are unions of a profession, not unions of an industrial worker. Thats a bit condescending, but a profession owns its professional standards.

That seems so different from the approach in Britain and the US.

My biggest worry with their approach to educationwhich is very common in Europeis that, in the past, you could assume that what students learn was going to last for their lifetime, so you could focus much of teaching on routine cognitive skills. In a knowledge economy, rote learning is becoming irrelevant. What counts are ways of thinking, ways of learning, tools for working. This is where you really need great teachers. No education system can be better than its teachers.

I want to ask about a result of yours on class size.

This is counter-intuitive, because if you dont see what quality is, you measure it on things like class size. And its clear that if everything else is equal, a smaller class is better than a larger class. But thats not the right question. The right question is: If you have one dollar extra to spend, do I put it into a smaller class, a better teacher, more learning time And what our research very clearly shows is that if you have to make a choice between a great teacher and a small class, choose the great teacher.