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PISA’s Worldwide Lessons in Equity and Excellence

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October 05, 2016 01:17 pm


Through a collection of questionnaires, the 2012 PISA measured students’ perspectives on school engagement, motivation, and beliefs in their academic abilities. These concepts, OECD notes, become relatively stable during adolescence, leading students “to behave in consistent and predictable ways across a wide range of situations.” OECD also acknowledges that such dispositions are influenced heavily by the quality of the students’ learning environments. Therefore, a well-resourced classroom is critical for developing positive qualities such as perseverance, internal locus of control, and high self-efficacy that prepare students for better academic performance and life success.

Fortunately, the 2012 PISA results show a decade-long positive global trend in educational spending. Between 2003 and 2012, OECD countries increased their average expenditure per student by 40 percentage points. Notable increases include Poland and Ireland, each of whom doubled their per-student spending.

Human resources increased in both quantity and quality. Between 2003 and 2012, OECD observed a 5-percentage-point decrease in the proportion of students attending schools with a shortage of qualified mathematics teachers. These qualified teachers also formed stronger relationships with their students, contributing to a positive school climate. The proportion of students agreeing with the statements “[I] get along with most teachers” and “Most teachers treat me fairly” increased by 11 and 4 percentage points respectively between 2003 and 2012.

The “Index of Quality of Schools’ Educational Resources” also increased indicating that a greater proportion of principals worldwide said they were satisfied with the quantity and quality of material resources available in their schools, such as textbooks, laboratory equipment, and technology.

However, investing more funds to acquire additional educational resources does not automatically translate to improved student performance. The graph below from the OECD’s What Makes Schools Successful report shows that at the lower end of the spectrum, a direct correlation exists between the amount a nation spent per student and the nation’s PISA mathematics score. (OECD measures a nation’s education spending as the total amount spent per student between ages six years and fifteen years.) In contrast, when expenditures exceed $50,000 (US) per student, as is the case for the United States, the correlation flattens out. Thus, there are factors beyond spending levels that contribute to student performance.

Emiliana Vegas from the Brookings Institution explains that this broken correlation occurs because “efficient spending is more important among systems that already provide the basic inputs necessary for a quality education.” According to data from the 2012 PISA, this “efficient spending” manifests in at least two methods: equitably distributing human and material resources between schools and providing greater access to high-quality instruction for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

PISA Day blog2

Resource Distribution and Instruction Gaps

OECD recognizes that a clear human and material resource distribution gap affects student performance, stating, “disadvantaged schools tend to … be more likely to suffer from teacher shortages, and shortages or inadequacy of educational materials … than advantaged schools.” Inequities exist not only in the quantity of resources, but their quality as well. OECD students of higher socioeconomic status tend to have access to teachers with higher qualifications.

Some high-performing OECD member nations like Finland, South Korea, and Germany are known for distributing both human and material resources equitably. Principals of disadvantaged schools in these countries reported having as much, if not more, access to adequate educational resources as their counterparts in advantaged schools.

There are also disparities in the instruction students receive based on their socioeconomic status. The latest PISA report, Equations and Inequalities, notes that exposure to “pure mathematics,” such as equations and functions, builds conceptual knowledge necessary to solve complex problems. Therefore, pure mathematics is more associated with higher PISA performance than simple, applied mathematics that relies on repetitive drilling with occasional references to real-life contexts. Although socioeconomically disadvantaged students receive the same amount of mathematics instruction as their peers, they receive less exposure to pure mathematics during that time.


Moving Forward: Policy Recommendations  

These resource-related issues offer a framework for approaching educational equity. Policies should reflect the finding that, in the United States, how we allocate and utilize educational resources is as important as how much we spend on them.

To help disadvantaged schools attract, retain, and support high-quality teachers, OECD’s Equity, Excellence and Inclusiveness in Education report outlines specialized teacher preparation, coaching, and mentoring programs to incentivize high-quality personnel to work in disadvantaged schools. The Alliance for Excellent Education (Alliance) also highlights specific state methods for closing gaps in access to high-quality teachers and recommends a comprehensive induction program for novice teachers.

To ensure that all students have access to effective instruction, OECD’s Equations and Inequalities report discourages tracking students based on mathematics performance and introduces strategies teachers can use to teach students in mixed-ability classes. In addition, two Alliance reports from the Climate Change series offer specific federal, state, and local policy recommendations for fostering a positive school climate by ensuring greater access to rigorous coursework and high-quality teaching.

PISA Day 2016 will explore additional educational equity issues identified through updated data from the 2015 assessment. More information about this event and the PISA exam are available on the PISA Day website.

Ji Soo Song is a former policy and advocacy intern at the Alliance.


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