Knowledge is Infinite—Oil is Not: Why PISA Matters for the Arab World

Since 2000, over 70 countries that make up over 80 percent of the world’s economy have been comparing how well their school systems prepare young people for life and work.

The framework for these comparisons is the world’s global metric for learning outcomes, known as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Essentially, PISA is an international test that is administered under standardized conditions. It measures the extent to which 15-year-old students have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies.

The assessment does not just ascertain whether students can reproduce what they have learned; it also examines how well they can extrapolate from what they have learned and apply that knowledge creatively in unfamiliar settings. This approach reflects the fact that modern societies reward individuals not just for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.

Of course, international comparisons are never easy and they aren’t perfect. But PISA shows what is possible in education and it helps countries see themselves in the mirror of the educational results and educational opportunities delivered by the world’s educational leaders.

The first thing the results from PISA show is that the knowledge and skills of a country are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run. A modest goal, for instance, would be to have the industrialized world boost the average PISA scores of their 15-year-old students by 25 points. That would be less than what the most rapidly improving education system in PISA, Poland, achieved between 2000 and 2006 alone. But such an increase could imply an aggregate gain of GDP of over $100 trillion over the lifetime of those students. In short, better skills have become the key to better jobs and better lives and the gains from educational improvement dwarf any conceivable cost of educational reform.

That is also an important message for the Arab countries. The wealth that lies hidden in the undeveloped skills of their populations is far greater than what they currently reap by extracting wealth from national resources. And there is more to this. PISA shows a negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their school population. Exceptions such as Canada, Australia and Norway, that are rich in natural resources but still score well on PISA, have all established deliberate policies of saving the money earned from these natural resources and not just consuming it.

One interpretation is that in countries with little in the way of natural resources—examples are Finland, Singapore or Japan—education has strong outcomes and a high status at least in part because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its knowledge and skills. So the value that a country places on education seems to depend at least in part on a country’s view of how knowledge and skills fit into the way it makes its living. Placing a high value on education may be an underlying condition for building a world-class education system in the short-term and a world-class economy in the long-run.

In short, knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st century economies. But there is no central bank that prints this currency; you cannot inherit this currency and you cannot produce it through speculation, you can only develop it through sustained effort and investment by people and for people. Moreover, this new currency depreciates as skill requirements of labor-markets evolve and individuals lose the skills they do not use. The toxic coexistence of unemployed graduates on the streets of the Arab world, while their employers say they cannot find the people with the skills they need illustrated that producing more of the same graduates cannot be the answer. It’s not graduation but PISA scores that predict better jobs and better lives.

To succeed with converting knowledge and skills into jobs, growth and social outcomes which nations require, countries need a better understanding of those skills that drive strong and sustainable economic and social outcomes. They need to ensure that the right mix of skills is being taught and learned over people’s lifetimes; and they need effective labor-markets that use their skill potential. That is exactly what PISA is about.

No country can do this alone and it is hard to improve what you don’t measure reliably. PISA does both by providing countries with a mirror that shows how their school systems deliver against the world’s educational leaders. That picture may at first not be a pleasant one. Brazil came out last in the world’s first PISA assessment in 2000. But that initial shock has subsequently leveraged huge improvement. Since then, Brazil’s education system has become the most rapidly improving.

It is time for the Arab world to join the group of countries that collaborate through PISA in order to raise educational standards. The world has become indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice. Success will go to those individuals, institutions and countries that are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change. The task for governments is to help their citizens rise to this challenge.

Andreas Schleicher is director for education and skills and special advisor on education policy with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development  in Paris.

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