Education in a competitive world

Not too long ago, the ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union structured the competition among nations.  The question then was: Which system promised the better life—capitalism or socialism? Today, political system hardly figures as a criterion in the classification of countries. And neither is the standing of nations assessed singularly by their present economic achievement. The key factor that now preoccupies governments that aim to succeed in an increasingly competitive world is the educational performance of their young people.

This is the reason for the current obsession with comparative rankings of universities on a global scale. These rankings constitute a major marketing tool for schools that are engaged in the fierce recruitment of students from all over the world. Increasingly, the big universities in the West have had to rely on foreign student enrollment to make up for the massive cuts in government subsidy to universities. But while the performance of tertiary institutions remains a crucial indicator of a country’s economic future, even more important to the overall prospects of a country is the state of its basic and secondary education. It is this that has been monitored for the longest time by inter-governmental institutions and research organizations.

The Economist (9/17/11) reports the latest findings from two reputable research agencies – the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), an office in the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and McKinsey, a research and consultancy firm. Pisa inquired into the academic attainment of 15-year-olds in 32 countries, and came up with rankings that troubled most of Europe. Only one European country – Finland, the maker of Nokia phones – made it to the top five. The other four were all Asian: Shanghai China (No. 1), South Korea (No. 2), Hong Kong China (No. 4), and Singapore (No. 5). The United States stood at No. 14, Germany at No. 16, and Britain at No. 18.

The rankings were based on performance in three areas: Reading, Mathematics, and Science. Shanghai led in all three areas. Japan, the first Asian country to break into the league of industrialized nations, was at No. 8 in educational achievement, trailing behind the new Asian economic dynamos – China, South Korea, and Singapore.

These outcomes are confirmed by the latest McKinsey report. The study sought to know which countries have made the most dramatic improvement in educational performance in recent years. Not surprisingly, the top three were Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea.  But, what was interesting was the composition of the rest of the top 10: Ontario Canada, Saxony Germany, England, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Poland.

The question that these findings leave in everybody’s mind is: What did these places do in common? What was it that spelled the difference? Existing analysis, says The Economist article, tends to focus on three reasons for bad schools: low government spending, social class differences, and cultures that do not value education. The problem is actually more complex. “The idea that good schooling is about spending money is the one that has been beaten back hardest. Many of the 20 leading economic performers in the OECD doubled or tripled their education spending in real terms between 1970 and 1994, yet outcomes in many countries stagnated – or went backwards…. Andreas Schleicher, head of analysis at Pisa, thinks that only about 10% of the variation in pupil performance has anything to do with money.”

In contrast, class differences seem to produce the biggest differences in educational performance. Children from economically disadvantaged families “remain at higher risks of poor outcomes.” One expert, Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington, is quoted as saying that up to 60 percent of academic performance is attributable to “non-school factors” like family income. This is certainly truer in countries like the Philippines where mass poverty exists, and children are sooner put to work than sent to school.

Perhaps the one thing that we share with the Confucian cultures of Asia is the high value we assign to education. Ask any Filipino parent and even the poorest will tell you that a good education is the most enduring of all wealth because no one can ever take it away from you. Yet it is a fact that the push to excel at school is felt mostly in middle-class families.  This is also where English, the preferred medium of modern education, is fast replacing the native tongue as the language of the home.

As important as these factors may be, current educational reform, says The Economist, tends to revolve around four basic thrusts: (1) letting the schools themselves set their own targets, with full support from the top, and calling on civic pride to raise the performance level of local schools; (2) paying particular attention to the needs of underachievers; (3) experimenting with a diverse range of schools that are suited to their milieu, including those “run by parents, charities, and local groups”; and (4) recruiting the best teachers and justly compensating them. These reforms do not come cheap, even as their outcomes are uncertain. But governments with lofty aspirations have had little choice but to keep experimenting, and studying, and copying, what others are doing.

What we do with the education of our children today will decide how we will fare in the even more intense competition of tomorrow’s world.

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