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The 5 Things You Need to Know about the World’s Highest Achieving Countries

Making Sense of Global Standing Reports

Research comparing the educational achievement of countries has exploded in recent years. However, knowing what to do with this information and what it communicates is something we are only beginning to get a grip on. How do you make sense of all those lists and stats? What does it really mean? Furthermore, what should we do with it?

There are many researchers, statisticians and spin doctors creating reports boldly announcing results. It all looks very official and comes in a textbook “matter of fact” format that quickly earns the credibility advantage. We’ve seen the media response as well, usually with headlines claiming that said country (yours) is falling behind world standards in a particular academic subject. The scary implication is the comparative demise in all fields relying on that skill set.

Politicians and tacticians hold up these reports to induce a low panic upon which they can provide a platform for campaigning. It would appear a powerful tool. After all, it is widely understood that the quality of an education system directly correlates to the economic viability of the society. Additionally, we want to feel assured in our capable preparation of the next generation thereby protecting “life as we know it” for another century.

We are eager to support education initiatives, especially in the face of a threatened world standing. “Educational reform” is the new buzz. With best intention, albeit a bit confused, off to the voting booths we go. Yet, how confident are we that the newest proposed legislation will make a difference? How confident are we in understanding the problem in the first place?

Few of us have the extra hours in the day to pour through multiple 200 page executive reports to analyze the data ourselves. There is little else to guide us through the mass of media, statistical graphs, and complicated discourse. Here is your quick guide of the basics (it will take 5 minutes) and you’ll be armed with information for making decisions as well as impress everyone at the next PTA meeting!

The Basics:

  • Who creates the ranking lists
  • What the results are
  • The Debates and Criticisms
  • 5 Components of Highest Achieving Countries

Who Creates the Ranking Lists

Here are the big players:

OECD/PISA (Paris-Based Organization) http://www.oecd.org/pisa/

The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) conducts the PISA study (Programme for International Student Assessment). Testing approx. 470,000 15-year-olds across the world in numeracy and literacy. Testing is conducted every four years. Most recent testing was done in 2011.

TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)

PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study http://timssandpirls.bc.edu

TIMSS has conducted four-yearly assessments of attainment at nine and 13 years of age since 1995.

PIRLS has studied nine-year-olds’ reading abilities since 2001

The Learning Curve http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com

LC published by Pearson and compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It uses the existing measures from TIMSS and PIRLS but adds criteria such as graduation rates, adult literacy and the effect of years in school on productivity.

World’s Top 20 Poll http://worldtop20.org/worldbesteducationsystem

The poll’s statistical data is compiled from 6 international organizations: OECD; PISA; TIMSS; PIRLS; United Nation’s Economic and Social Council (UNESOC), The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), It is then sent to each countries Ministry of Education Department to assure the data is accurate.

There is some broad stroke agreement on the highest achieving countries among the most recognized testing machines. The highest scorers in reading, math, and combination totals are: Shanghai-China, South Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Japan.

TIMSS and PIRLS report significant statistical increase in US students in reading and math. In 2011, the US ranked 5th and 6th place respectively to Hong Kong, Russia, Finland, Singapore (Reading) and Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Japan (Math).

TIMSS also reports US in 7th place in science with a significant gain in 8th grade students.

Note, however that in the World Poll and the OECD/PISA results, US does not earn a mention anywhere near the top.

The UK recently jumped according to The Learning Curve, which used TIMSS and PIRLS scores (which did not indicate UK at the top). However, LC introduced additional ingredients to the mix bringing UK within the top 10. This is strongly contested by some, others (mostly Brits) feel the measure includes important factors of indication for success (more on this in the provided link).

Wherever you look, everyone seems unhappy with their scores and worried about how they compare globally. Even the highest scorers (Japanese, South Korea, China) are sensitive about a small dip comparatively, and even if they stay the same in the scores, polls show that there are concerns that while their students are performing the highest in the world, that they are too stressed and lack the enjoyment of learning. No one is bragging, folks.

The Debates and Criticisms

Some point out that standardized scores are only snapshots and a small piece of the total picture. There are other skill sets and capacities that are not represented, like confidence, presentation, listening and creativity that are also vital skills for success.

Additionally, scores on standardized tests give only that, the numbers. It does not give you information about why the numbers are as they are. Therefore, poor standing only communicates that there is a problem, but not exactly what the problem is. Some contend that it is the test itself that is the problem. Others attribute low standing to outside factors such as poverty.

Other critics have pointed out that there are also inherent unavoidable inconsistencies when applying one standard tool in the wide array of world educational settings. For example studies that incorporate the percentage of students who continue on to higher education are then skewed when some of the countries do not track this data due to required participation in military upon completion of secondary school. This creates a zero on a weighted measure that drops the overall score and standing for that country significantly.

Some challenge the inclusion of college attendance percentages, pointing out that further structured academic study is a choice and many high achieving students follow a different (and equally valuable) path to later accomplishment.

There are juxtaposed factors that make dense reports like this confusing. For example, Finland spends a modest share of its GDP on schools, pays teachers basic salaries and has small classes while South Korea spends lavishly, and rewards teachers richly to tea large classes yet both are high ranking countries. It may be more helpful to identify the similarities among the highest ranking systems. Hallmarks such as, Finland and South Korea both have high expectations of their students and assume responsibility to ensure success.

This may be the best place to start attempting to understand and replicate outstanding systems. Here’s a glimpse at what appears, to be some stand out similarities:

5 Things You Need to Know (about the highest achieving educational systems)

  1. Rigorous teacher screening and focus on highly educated and qualified teachers. On-going professional development and high teacher expectations coupled with support to achieve goals. There was not a link discovered in teacher pay and student success.
  2. High cultural value on education. Some countries have progressed by leaps in a matter of a couple decades (ex: S. Korea) due to a change in societal messaging breading a new cultural value for academics. The story a nation tells about itself needs to be one that says, “we are a nation that ensures everyone succeeds.” Countries which do that with conviction and consistency can leapfrog ahead and outcomes can change rapidly. Many students in the Asian “super league” countries have grandparents who are barely literate. Israel has also leapt up in math and reading. Being propelled by an ambition for upward mobility is powerful. Spending money on resources does not show a direct positive impact, culture matters more than structure or expenditure.
  3. Positive teacher-student relationships. A positive relationship is shown to promote and strengthen observance of expected classroom behaviors which are conducive to learning. Even for the most disadvantaged students, if they trust that their teacher believes they matter and are capable, they perform better.
  4. Parental interest in school activities, and thereby adding to the schools human resources has a strong correlation to success.
  5. School choice and accurate easily accessible information to parents about the school choice options is found alongside student achievement.

While there is no magic bullet, a picture of what appears to foster a fertile ground for high achievement does emerge. With this picture we can develop a filter to consider changes and approaches to improvement. In the minimum, we ought to safeguard these 5 factors first and work to protect them.