The tangible and intangible: income, culture and education outcomes

Income and test results: a virtuous circle or common offspring?

Two correlations from the quantitative analysis indicate a link between a country’s income and its educational outcomes: higher GDP is associated with better overall PISA scores, and the UNDP’s Income Index is a predictor of national secondary school graduation rates. Similarly, PISA results correlate with national GDP and Income Index scores in the years following the tests being administered. In both cases, however, the causation is not clear. In relation to the second link, for example, those who were age 15 in 2009 and 2006 have had so little time in the labour force that the contribution of their skills is unlikely to have had much effect yet on national income. That said, Professor Schleicher reports that PISA’s extensive longitudinal data on test-takers indicates that the test’s predictive power of ease of transition to work and initial income is high.

On the surface, this suggests a virtuous circle – money buys good education, which instils higher earning power. This seems to parallel an often observed link between socio-economic status and academic results within countries. If anything, this association is growing in the United States,[2] but it is far from an American phenomenon. It is present in European countries, such as the United Kingdom and Italy, as well as, according to a 1999 study by a World Bank researcher, in 43 largely developing nations.[3]

Money, for both countries and individuals, does brings obvious advantages. As Ms Parthasarathi notes for families, “wealth gives you access to schools where you assume there are better teachers, etc, [and] ... people who don’t have the means miss out on a lot of opportunities.” The wider link to educational results, however, is far from straightforward. Ms Parthasarathi points out that, at the individual level, even something as basic as student motivation can be greatly affected by economic background.

More generally, a recent OECD report indicates that a commitment to equity within an education system can greatly diminish the correlation between family income and educational outcomes. It points to Finland, Canada and South Korea, among others, as examples of success in this area.[4] This is consistent with research conducted by the Canadian Council on Learning, says Mr Cappon. “Our composite learning index showed no direct correlation between the wealth of a community and its learning environment. It is not a given that you simply get a higher result with higher income levels.”

Similarly, the tie between GDP per capita and PISA results is far from linear. For countries with incomes under $20,000 per person, economic growth appears to bring rapidly improving educational results. After that point, however, the gains become much less obvious.[5] This type of result is common in economics, appearing in areas such as the impact of national income on life expectancy: up to a certain point, the need is so great that almost any spending brings gains; thereafter the way that the money is spent becomes much more significant. Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University, explains: “It is more important how resources are used than how much. In some places school systems and countries seem to know how to spend wisely, in others they don’t.”

Chart 3: PISA results and GDP growth per head, selected countries

Chart 3: PISA results and GDP growth per head, selected countries

Note: The overall PISA score is an aggregate of the test scores in reading, mathematics and science literacy. It is calculated by the EIU, utilising OECD data.

Sources: Economist Intelligence Unit and OECD.

For most experts, however, talking of GDP’s effects on outcomes reverses causality. Professor Hanushek states that “it is not quite a chicken-and-egg thing. It doesn’t look like faster growth leads to higher PISA scores, but there is substantial evidence to suggest that if you can find a way to get higher PISA scores you will get higher growth.” In other words, both current GDP and high levels of cognitive skills in students are results of the same education-policy decisions made sometimes many years earlier. Professor Schleicher agrees, citing the experiences of South Korea and China which decades ago, with lower GDPs than many countries, made strategic decisions to focus investment on education. They have seen both national incomes and test scores surpass many others as a result. “It is not a question of if you are rich, you can afford a good education system,” he concludes. “You may need to build a 40-year time gap between investment and economic outcomes, but the causality of the link is established.”

Culture: An unquantifiable essential

Money as a driver of education outcomes has the advantage of being measurable. Many experts interviewed for this study, however, identify something far less concrete as far more important. Robert Schwartz – Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education – underscores a difficulty in analyses of educational inputs and outputs: “How do you disentangle deeply embedded cultural values from social and educational policies?”           

The issue of culture is relevant across the world. Dr Finn says of the US: “The typical young American, upon turning 18, will have spent 9% of his or her life in school [assuming perfect attendance]. That can accomplish a lot, but is relatively weak in terms of overall effect. If the 91% is cooperating with the 9%, then you have a good recipe. If there is no positive re-enforcement of educational achievement taking place outside the school – if, for example, the larger culture glorifies celebrities who can barely read – you will have huge trouble.”

In parts of Africa, culture can bring significant challenges, says Mamadou Ndoye, former Minister of Basic Education in Senegal. “School as it exists is not a product of the internal development of Africa,” he explains. “It was imposed from outside. In many countries, the community [still] think of school as a foreign object, which is a problem for local ownership.” In Asia, on the other hand, the success of schools “has more to do with society and culture than the school system,” says Professor Yong Zhao, Associate Dean for Global Education at the University of Oregon. “In Asian countries, even if you can’t succeed, you have to hang in there.” Anthony Mackay, Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, adds: “In East Asian countries, where learning is held to be both a moral duty and social duty, you would not even have the conversation about the need for high expectations about young people’s learning.” Nor are national cultures monolithic. Mr Cappon notes that “in North America, you see that depending on the culture of origin, there are massive discrepancies. If they [students’ families] come from Hong Kong or Singapore, they do well; if from Latin America or Haiti, they don’t.”

If culture is seen as somehow inherent and immutable, such insights might seem of little value to education policymakers. Indeed, they would suggest that educational success is almost predetermined. Culture, however, is changeable if addressed properly. Respect for teachers, for example, is ingrained in certain cultures such as those in Finland and South Korea. However, it can also be built in a society through policy choices. Professor Sing Kong Lee, Director of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, recalls that when the government wished to attract better teaching candidates, it realised that the recognition of value of the profession in the country needed to be strengthened. This was done through introducing policies such as setting the salaries of beginning teachers equal to those of beginning engineers and accountants entering the civil service, thereby sending out a clear message that the importance of the teaching profession is equal to that of other professions.

Another way of addressing the situation, says Professor Lee, was that “the government recognised the contribution of teachers by defining their mission: to mould the future of the nation. What can be more noble than that?” It also established 1st September as National Teachers’ Day, on which the President invites teachers to the Istana (Presidential Office) to recognise those who do good work with awards. Students usually get a day off as well. Professor Lee credits such steps with raising the profile of the profession greatly.

These steps might not work in every country, but they do show that existing cultures can be changed in a way that assists educational outcomes. In this the education system itself has an important role. As Professor Stecher notes: “Schools are both recipients and creators of cultural patterns: over the long term they help to shape norms for the next generations.”

[2]See Greg J. Duncan and Richard Murnane, eds. Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, 2011.

[3]Deon Filmer, “Inequalities in Education: International Experience”, in Ismail Sirageldin, Human Development in the Twenty First Century.

[4]Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting disadvantaged students and schools, 2012.

[5]“Does money buy strong performance in PISA”, PISA in Focus, February 2012.


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