Is real progress being made in the equitable provision of education? #PISAresults

17 March 2017


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PISA 2015

Everywhere, education systems are striving to improve both learning outcomes and equity in learning opportunities. Yet, over the past decade, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveals, only a few education systems have been making significant progress in achieving greater equity. Nevertheless, as Andreas Schleicher, Director of the Directorate for Education and Skills at the OECD, pointed out at IIEP-UNESCO’s Strategic Debate on 13 March, “PISA data also show some amazing success stories.”


Watch the video of the full debate

The well-attended Strategic Debate provided an overview of where progress is being made in providing equitable education. To determine this, the OECD analysed trends in science performance of half a million students – representing 28 million 15-years-olds in 72 countries who took part in the last PISA assessment – by taking into account various factors that condition both science performance and greater equity in education.

Map of PISA countries and economies

Science performance and equity in PISA 2015

“Equity is measured through the strength of the relationship between social background and learning outcomes,” explained Schleicher. 

Science performance and equity in PISA (2015)

Comparative data from PISA 2015 confirm that quality in education and equity in opportunities are not conflicting policy objectives; instead they can and should be combined. For example, over the course of a decade, the United States made considerable progress improving the learning outcomes of students from disadvantaged social backgrounds.

Strategic Debate Lesson 1: Equity is something countries can reach over time.

Poverty is not destiny

“Poverty is not destiny”, Schleicher said. In fact, countries such as Viet Nam and China are doing a better job giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds a high quality education. The highest-performing countries in terms of equity are not necessarily those allocating the most resources to education; rather they are putting their best teachers in the most challenging classrooms. “If you give a low-performing school the expertise of the best schools, then you can make a change,” said Schleicher.

“Most countries, including the wealthier ones, are not doing a good job matching resources with needs,” Schleicher insisted. “Our allocation of resources is not benefitting the children who need them the most. … Spending the money better is a big challenge around the world, although some progress is being made.”  

Differences in educational resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools

Strategic Debate Lesson 2
: Make out the most of resources and, most importantly, match resources with needs.

Learning time and science performance

A troubling finding of PISA 2015 is that, in many places, the longer students went to school, the worse they performed. “In limited, but effective learning times, students learn a lot,” said Schleicher. Quality learning outcomes are always the product of the quantity of learning time and the quality of learning opportunities. 


Strategic Debate Lesson 3
: Equity is not about spending more time in school, it’s about the quantity of learning time and the quality of learning outcomes.

The influence of non-cognitive factors on learning outcomes

The social and emotional qualities of learning are also key factors; the focus should not be on cognitive learning outcomes only. PISA worked with students, parents, teachers, and principals to ensure that economic, social, and cultural dimensions were taken into account in this assessment. Twelve other variables – including parental occupation, education, income, even the number of books in a household – were used to identify different non-cognitive aspects when analysing equity and learning outcomes. 
Later this year, the OECD will publish its first report on student well-being – one of the “21st century skills and competences” it has identified. “Sometimes, students who perform well in cognitive outcomes”, Schleicher pointed out, “do not score well in non-cognitive outcomes”.

Strategic Debate Lesson 4: Non-cognitive outcomes must be taken into account when assessing learning outcomes.

Policy and practice - factors associated with equity in science performance

Many factors, Schleicher explained, are associated with lower equity in science performance. For example, early tracking or selection can be a “huge detriment to equity” in science, as it correlates with a lower index of teacher support. “We found that the later schools divide students into different tracks, the more supportive teachers seem to be.” The theory is that, “when students get divided very early, it is convenient for teachers – who feel they don’t have to be as supportive. When it takes place later, they feel that they have to engage more with the students.”

Another factor is relative cost: for low-income parents, lower costs influence school choice, whereas for wealthier parents, school reputation matters more. A relationship between the former, and poorer learning outcomes, and the latter, and better learning performance, was seen in all countries from which PISA collected data. According to Schleicher, “allowing choice to select schools reinforces social inequality.”  


Schleicher concluded his presentation by reasserting that it is possible for countries to improve learning outcomes for all students. “There are countries that have shown us that we can actually get good outcomes for students of all social backgrounds,” he said. “We can change the quality–equity trade off. In a period of 10 years, we have seen how we can close the gap. In a short period of history, some countries have provided more equitable opportunities. How we mobilize resources – but also how we run our education systems – the most implicit mechanisms have a huge impact on the quality and equity of learning opportunities that students are given.”

Gita Steiner-Khamsi, Director of the Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training (NORRAG), and discussant at the Strategic Debate, made several comments about the PISA equity framework and policy relevance. Steiner-Khamsi asked Schleicher about gender, locality, and minority groups such as indigenous populations, as well as out-of-school students. Schleicher responded that “in cognitive outcomes, such as in science and mathematics, we can no longer see gender differences, but in non-cognitive outcomes, such as career aspirations and motivation, we do see differences.” PISA is also working with households to include out-of-school students, and is exploring different methods to test their knowledge and competencies using mobile phones. Concerning policy relevance, Steiner-Khamsi said PISA is “policy oriented”, and asked what is considered a school “system”, as PISA analysis includes countries, regions, and cities. Finally, Steiner-Khamsi discussed the policy relevance of 21st century skills, non-curriculum based assessment, and how these elements should be measured.

Michaela Martin, Programme Specialist at IIEP and moderator of the discussions, concluded IIEP’s first Strategic Debate of 2017 by sharing three messages she took from Schleicher’s talk. First, poverty need not be destiny. Second, policy matters, and countries have made progress through developing good, targeted policies. Finally, policy is not everything, as other factors such as culture also impact equity and student performance.


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Our next Strategic Debate will be on Equity in Higher Education on Thursday 4 May. Stay tuned!