Last week, Pearson Education released its annual global educational performance report. Once again, their findings provide a roadmap for teaching students in the 21st century and for why Asian nations are racing ahead.
Building on their last report, one of Pearson’s key findings is that increased financial investments in education do not inexorably lead to concomitant academic returns. That news is particularly troubling for the United States, which leads the developed world in per pupil education spending and where increased education investment is often pitched as the antidote to the country’s mediocre standing in global measures of college and career readiness. While the US moved up slightly in the new rankings, the number of college degrees conferred has kept the US from advancing further. Moreover, how we utilize our college-educated workforce could lead to future problems.
The Learning Curve 2014 uses data gathered by The Economist Intelligence Unit to determine which countries are doing the best job in preparing students for the 21st century workforce. The report uses statistics on such indicators as spending, school attendance, teacher salary, test scores (including PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS), employment rates and salaries to rank the countries. You could spend hours reviewing all of the metrics Pearson and the Economist use to evaluate educational systems across the globe.
While the sheer volume of metrics indicates that one bad score won’t kill you, you can still identify plenty of trends from the data. For instance, Indonesia (No. 40), Brazil (No. 38), Thailand (No. 35) and Chile (No. 32) were among the lowest educational performers of the 39 countries and one region (Hong Kong) ranked, yet they rank among the world’s top spenders on public education as a percentage of their total governments’ expenditures.
What did affect achievement, Pearson found, was when educational systems placed a priority on basic skill development. Not surprisingly, the top four countries overall – South Korea (No. 1), Japan (No. 2), Singapore (No. 3) and Hong Kong (No. 4) – all put an emphasis on their students developing basic skills, such as numeracy and literacy.
“The Learning Curve provides an ever-deeper knowledge base about precisely how education systems improve themselves,” said Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education advisor in a story on MENAFN.com. “The rise of Pacific Asian countries, which combine effective education systems with a culture that prizes effort above inherited ‘smartness’ is a phenomenon that other countries can no longer ignore.”
The United States finished 14th in the composite rankings, a modest improvement over the last report. One thing that’s keeping America from ranking higher is its low college graduation rate, which is 20th in the world.
In an interview with Education Week last week, Barber said leading countries graduate up to 90 percent of their college enrollees. The U.S., meanwhile, only awards degrees to about 50 percent of those who begin college. And, as I noted in a previous post, that percentage is far lower for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, and those of Pacific Islander descent.
In addition to the rankings, Pearson interviewed seven international experts on education to supplement the research and identify global trends in education and workforce development. The findings from these interviews included:
• Half of the economic growth in developed countries in the last decade came from improved skills, highlighting the importance of skill development to growing an economy.
• It’s no longer solely about the three “Rs.” Yes, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic are still critical, but so, too, are what Pearson terms “non-cognitive skills,” such as communication, leadership, emotional intelligence, teamwork, entrepreneurship, global citizenship, and problem-solving.
• It’s not just important to develop skills. These skills must be put to effective use in the workforce. If not, skills deteriorate at a precipitous rate. This could have stark consequences here in the US, where, as I noted in a previous post, 36% of young college graduates find themselves in jobs better suited to a high school graduate.
• Adult education is not an effective way to mitigate an underachieving K-12 school system. “The more skills you have early in life, the more you build on those, and commensurately the more you have later in life,” said Stanford University Fellow Eric Hanushek in the report. Those systems that teach their students the basics early position their citizens to learn new skills more readily, he added.
• While Scandinavian nations lagged Asia in the education rankings, they score highly in skill retention because they encourage adults to continuously expand their skills by providing a low-cost infrastructure to ensure this happens.
• Technology is overrated. Notes the report, “Technology can provide new pathways into adult education, … but is no panacea. There is little evidence that technology alone helps individuals actually develop new skills.” Bad news for the sundry US edu startups and their VC backers, who seem preternaturally persuaded of ed-tech’s power to magically improve this country’s global education standing.
“Even in the richest countries, fewer than half of school students are career or college ready, with the result that higher education institutions and employers often find themselves re-skilling school-leavers before they embark on the next phase of their lives,” said Pearson CEO John Fallon in the report’s foreword.
In other words, as I’ve frequently noted, it’s not how much money a country spends on education, but where and how it spends it, as well as the cultural expectations a nation sets for student initiative, drive and excellence.
Let’s get to work, America.
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