This year’s Education at a Glance report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development includes new indicators on early childhood education and care, on inequality in education and how a parent’s education influences their child’s academic attainment, and on factors affecting the performance of immigrant and disadvantaged children at school. EWA spoke with Andreas Schleicher, OECD deputy director for education and special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general of the OECD.
1. What prompted the decision to include information about preschool education?
Results from PISA have shown consistently across countries that 15-year-olds who had taken part in sustained early childhood and care programs had a significant performance advantage in key school subjects, even after accounting for social background. We believe it is an important dimension in educational trajectories, and it is one where there is great variability in national policies and practices.
2. Student loan debt is a huge issue in the United States. What lessons might be drawn from how other countries structure repayment?
Most industrialized nations have seen rapidly rising college graduate output over recent years, in many cases surpassing U.S. graduation levels, while college graduate output in the U.S. remained flat. At the very same time, the costs for college education in the U.S. have risen beyond twice the average in the industrialized world, with an exceptionally high financial burden on students and their families.
Some Northern European countries have taken the approach of making college education free for all, and they pay for this with steeply progressive tax systems. It serves them well, but is hard to replicate elsewhere. I also don’t see anything wrong with tuition, as it reflects an important principle of ensuring that students and governments share the costs and benefits of higher education. What we have learned from countries that have taken that route and successfully broadened access to tertiary education and improved completion rates is that they have strong student support systems that help reduce liquidity constraints faced by students. These usually come with two major components: an income-contingent loan system available to all, complemented with a scheme of means-tested grants.
3. What’s a specific example a country benefitting from that more generous approach to student loans?
Take the United Kingdom: 80 percent of the costs of higher education there come from private sources, so tuition is high. But all students have access to government-provided loans and this access is risk-free for students, because you only pay back once your income is above a fairly generous threshold. Sure, there are some defaults, but U.K. taxpayers still make almost $90,000 profit out of the average college graduate over their working life, because better educated workers pay higher taxes.
4. Teachers in the U.S. spend more time working in the classroom – and generally for less pay – than many other countries. But what do we know about how much extra time teachers in other countries spend planning and discussing their teaching?
This varies considerably across countries (see Table D4.1 in report). Japan has one of the lowest numbers of teaching hours but one of the highest numbers of working hours. The reason is that the Japanese have a very different image of what the role of a teacher is. Teachers teach; they provide individual student support; they provide academic and career and job counseling; and, yes, they work with the students to clean the classroom. And all of this is considered core of the pedagogical mission.
So how do the Japanese manage to pay teachers well, have long instruction hours for students and still have a low teaching load for teachers? The answer is class size. Japanese classes are very large by Western standards – 35 to 45 students in a class – and most instruction is for the whole class. There is less instructional technology than in many other countries and fewer instructional aids of other kinds. Students are not separated into ability groups; there are no special classes for the gifted, nor are students pushed ahead by a grade or more if they are perceived to be exceptionally able. Many students requiring special education are also assigned to the heterogeneous regular classrooms. The job of the teacher is to make sure that all students keep up with the curriculum, and they manage to do this.
5. Children of less-educated parents in the United States have a tougher time reaching college than their counterparts in other countries, but if they do manage to graduate there’s a higher payoff. What do you make of that dichotomy?
A strength of the U.S. economy is that the labor-market is very responsive to the skills that people have. So if you obtain the requisite skills, you will draw huge benefits from this. The weakness of the system is the lack of a level playing field, the odds that you will obtain a good education if your parents have not is simply too small.