Statistic of the Month: Education Performance, Equity and Efficiency

by Jennifer Craw

The top performing education systems in the world have not only excellent student performance, but also a high level of equity in student achievement and an efficient model for educational spending.  There are many ways to achieve all three goals and there are lessons to be learned from the various ways in which top performing education systems manage to do so.  This month we look at the top performing education systems in each of these areas.

PEE Venn2

*Comparable spending data unavailable for Shanghai and Hong Kong
Sources: OECD PISA 2012, OECD Education at a Glance 2014, and Singapore Ministry of Education

Student Performance:

Countries in the top red circle in the chart above are the top ten performers from PISA 2012, across the three subject areas tested.  CIEB determines overall PISA performance by averaging each country’s score from the three sections of PISA—math, reading and science.  The ten education systems shown here are featured on CIEB’s website, with individual country profiles and comparative data among all ten.  (Note: Although Liechtenstein qualifies as a Top Performer according to CIEB’s criteria, it is not included in this analysis as its very small population makes useful comparisons with other countries and economies limited.)  For more on how these countries structure their education systems and their strategies for improvement see CIEB’s country profiles.


The education systems featured in the lower left blue circle had the lowest percent of variation on PISA 2012 mathematics explained by socio-economic status.  That is, poverty has a relatively small effect on student performance in these systems.  Many education systems with high student performance also have high rates of equity, including Hong Kong, Finland, Estonia, and Canada.  In fact, all of the top performers have relatively low levels of student variation due to students’ socio-economic status.  See the third column of the table below that compares the variation in mathematics performance explained by socio-economic status in the top performing education systems and the U.S.  In addition, many of the top performers have relatively high levels of students from poor backgrounds who score at the highest levels on PISA, another measure of equity used by the OECD.  For more on this, see CIEB’s December 2013 Statistic of the Month on resilient students on PISA 2012.

Performance, Efficiency and Equity: Top Performing Countries and the U.S.

Country Performance1 Efficiency2 Equity3
Shanghai 1 NA4 15.1
Hong Kong 2 NA4 7.5
Singapore 3 $9,022 14.4
Japan 4 $9,886 9.8
Korea 5 $8,199 10.1
Finland 6 $7,270 9.4
Taiwan 7 $3,447 17.9
Estonia 8 $6,389 8.6
Canada 9 $4,574 9.4
Poland 10 $5,870 16.6
United States 29 $12,731 14.8


1 Average rank on all three sections of PISA
2 Spending per secondary student, USD 2011
3 Percent of variation in mathematics performance explained by socio-economic status
4 Comparable spending data not available for Hong Kong and Shanghai
Sources: OECD PISA 2012, OECD Education at a Glance 2014, and Singapore Ministry of Education


The yellow circle in the Venn diagram above represents countries that spend the least per secondary school student.  Several countries have high scores on PISA and achieve high levels of equity in student performance while spending relatively little per student.  Estonia, for example, was able to dramatically improve student performance on PISA while spending about $6,389 USD compared to $12,731 USD per student in the U.S.  The second column in the above table compares how much top performing countries and the U.S. spend per secondary student.  For more on how countries spend their education dollars and how that can affect student performance see CIEB’s October 2014 Statistic of the Month on teacher salaries and class sizes.

Shown in the center of the Venn diagram, three education systems—Estonia, Finland and Canada—score well in all three categories. These systems are able to offer their students a quality education regardless of socio-economic background at a low cost and still come out at the top of the international league tables for overall student performance.  For more on how each of these three systems is structured and what the U.S. and others can learn from them, visit their country profiles on CIEB’s Top Performing Countries site.