August 7, 2015
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an assessment program developed to evaluate education systems around the world while testing 15-year-old students on their skills and knowledge. Since 1997, PISA has been considered as the most reliable source of information on the quality of education systems worldwide. Upon disclosing results the “PISA-shock” or the realization that much can be learned by other countries, has motivated countries to improve their education systems.
Countries like Kosove can learn three important things from PISA. First is the realization that increasing enrolment rates does not lead to better learning quality. Aside from the progress in increasing rates of enrolment worldwide, PISA results show that this does not automatically lead to learning. The country of Jordan, for example, has an enrolment rate of 91 percent but their PISA scores are below OECD average (Perlman-Robinson and Alexander, 2013). As a consequence, policy builders in Kosove should realize that education quality is separate issue from ensuring enrollment, providing the teaching staff and school buildings. To date, school budgets in Kosove are operational in nature, for example paying salaries, as opposed to being developmental (e.g. ensuring quality).
Secondly, by participating in PISA, Kosove can become aware of its current standing in relation to other countries. PISA is very important for us because it is a very honest evaluation of the learning quality. Not just Kosove, but other countries thought that everything was fine with their education systems but PISA happened in 1997 and countries such as Norway realized that was not the case.
Finally, PISA proves that progress is possible even in short periods of time. This is the first year we are participating in PISA but we will not know the outcome until December 2016. Regardless of the results Kosove has an incredible opportunity to improve its education system by learning from the best. A country that used PISA to improve its education system is Brazil which was at the bottom of the rankings in 2000 when it participated for the first time. Brazil utilized PISA to improve its policies and even if its education system is not ideal it is the one system that improved its quality more than any other system in the world over the past 10 years. Therefore improvements are achievable and do not need unlimited funds. Only 6% of performance differences are explained by national income, suggesting that 94 % of the difference in performance is determined by other factors for example good teachers or motivated and aspiring students (Solheim, 2015). Although we may not have unlimited funds, we can be smart about where we invest our money.
Why should we pay so much attention to our education system? Education is assumed to contribute to economic development and poverty reduction. Evidence from OECD countries in the period 1960-2000 shows that countries with higher test scores tend to experience higher economic growth. Experts also argue that if developing countries commit to improving education systems and reach the level of Finland, they should expect their GDP to double over a short period of time. What will happen once Kosove succeeds in improving its education system? As an economist, I am tempted to argue that we should experience growth and prosperity. However, the fact is that the link between education and economic growth is not that simple. Improving education systems is one story, benefiting economically from improvements is yet another one.
In cases like Kosove improvements in education will not translate to economic growth unless characteristics of bad governance such as corruption are depleted. Given that good governance is not a part of the Millennium Development Goals this factor is rarely considered but the truth is that governance is a powerful mediating factor for developing countries. Returns to education depend heavily on a government that is efficient, not corrupt and accountable. Without such a government developing countries have little to expect from education.