Executive summary

The goal of improving education today enjoys great prominence among policymakers and other stakeholders in societies worldwide. Although they may not be able to quantify it, governments in most countries recognise a link between the knowledge and skills with which young people enter the workforce and long-term economic competitiveness. For this reason, interest is intense in research which explores the factors that seem to lead in some countries to outstanding educational performance, and ultimately to better qualified workforces.

This report, and the broader Learning Curve programme of which it is part, is aimed at helping policymakers, educators, academics and other specialists to identify some of these factors. At its heart is a significant body of quantitative research. The Learning Curve Data Bank (LCDB), which is accessible online, brings together an extensive set of internationally comparable data on education inputs and outputs covering over 50 countries. This in turn has enabled a wide-ranging correlation analysis, conducted to test the strength of relationships between inputs, outputs and various socio-economic outcomes. It also underpins an initiative to create a comparative index of educational performance which, as will become apparent, is anything but a straightforward exercise.

Educators might hope that this or other similar bodies of research would yield the "holy grail": identification of the input, or set of inputs, that above all else leads to better educational results wherever it is applied. Alas, if this report makes nothing else clear, it is that no such magic bullets exist at an international level – or at least that they cannot, as yet, be statistically proven. Nonetheless, our research – which is also based on insights gathered from experts across the world – provides some definite signposts. Following are its highlights:

Strong relationships are few between education inputs and outputs

The research examined a wide range of education inputs, both quantitative – such as spending on pupils and class size – as well as qualitative – such as level of school choice. It also looked at numerous potential outcomes, ranging from inculcation of cognitive skills to GDP growth. A number of inputs show a statistical link over time with certain outputs, notably between income and results. These are discussed in the chapters that follow, but the most striking result of the exercise is how few correlations there are. Education remains very much a black box in which inputs are turned into outputs in ways that are difficult to predict or quantify consistently. Experts point out that simply pouring resources into a system is not enough: far more important are the processes which use these resources.

Income matters, but culture may matter more

On the surface, money and education seem to create a virtuous circle, with rich countries – and individuals – buying good educations for their children who, in turn, benefit economically. A closer look, though, indicates that both higher income levels and better cognitive test scores are the result of educational strategies adopted, sometimes years earlier, independently of the income levels existing at the time. More important than money, say most experts, is the level of support for education within the surrounding culture. Although cultural change is inevitably complex, it can be brought about in order to promote better educational outcomes.

There is no substitute for good teachers

Good teachers exercise a profound influence: having a better one is statistically linked not only to higher income later in life but to a range of social results including lower chances of teenage pregnancy and a greater tendency to save for their own retirement. The problem is that there is no agreed list of traits to define or identify an excellent teacher, let alone a universal recipe for obtaining them. That said, successful school systems have a number of things in common: they find culturally effective ways to attract the best people to the profession; they provide relevant, ongoing training; they give teachers a status similar to that of other respected professions; and the system sets clear goals and expectations but also lets teachers get on with meeting these. Higher salaries, on the other hand, accomplish little by themselves.

When it comes to school choice, good information is crucial

Recent research indicates that countries with greater choice of schools have better education outcomes. Presumably, allowing parents to choose the best schools rewards higher quality and leads to overall improvement. In practice, however, finding the mechanism to make this happen is difficult. Extensive studies of voucher programmes and charter schools in the United States indicate that, while both can be beneficial, neither is a magic formula. On the other hand, for-profit private education is providing students in some of the least developed areas of the world an alternative to poor state provision and showing the potential benefits of choice and accountability. Ultimately, as in any market or quasi-market, the real value of choice comes from people having the right information to select the option that is truly superior.

There is no single path to better labour market outcomes

Education seems to correlate with a host of personal benefits, from longer life to higher income. At a national level, too, education and income appear to go together. Finding the type of education that leads to the best economic outcomes, however, is far from straightforward. Different strategies have distinct pros and cons. For example, some countries – but far from all – place considerable emphasis on vocational training as preparation for employment. Similarly, education systems cannot simply educate for the present: leading ones look at what skills will be needed in future and how to inculcate them.

A global index can help highlight educational strengths and weaknesses

An important output of the Learning Curve programme is the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment. Covering 40 countries, it is based on results in a variety of international tests of cognitive skills as well as measures of literacy and graduation rates. The top performers in the Index are Finland and South Korea. In some ways, it is hard to imagine two more different systems: the latter is frequently characterised as test-driven and rigid, with students putting in extraordinary work time; the Finnish system is much more relaxed and flexible. Closer examination, though, shows that both countries develop high-quality teachers, value accountability and have a moral mission that underlies education efforts.

Five lessons for education policymakers

1. There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement.

2. Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.

3. Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.

4. Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.

5. Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.


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