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Many of us think that we learn all we need to know about reading in school but a new report from the OECD provides a rare glimpse at the way many young people continue to improve their reading proficiency after graduation.  Some of this unfolds pretty much as you would expect, but some factors that affect continued improvement in reading ability are a bit surprising.

Learning Beyond Fifteen: Ten Years After PISA finds that the largest gains in reading achievement typically occur during compulsory education. But the study shows that many adolescents who leave high school with relatively low reading comprehension greatly improve their reading ability and some of these students can close the gap altogether.

The study examines reading gains of Canadian youth between the ages of 15 and 24.  The report uses data that Canada collected from the PISA assessment of 15-year- olds (PISA-15) in 2000, the first time the test was administered.  The test was given to 30,000 students across all ten Canadian provinces.  In 2009, when the original PISA-15 students were 24 years old, a subset of the cohort took the PISA exam again (PISA-24).

The report also takes into account information from Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey (YITS), developed to analyze education and labor-market outcomes of Canadian youth.  The survey collected data from the PISA-15 respondents and their parents at the time they took their initial PISA test at age 15.  Every two years thereafter, the survey also collected information from students about their education and employment experiences, their life choices, and their attitudes.  In 2009, when the surveyed students were 24 years old, a subset of the cohort completed a PISA reassessment.

Overall, there was a clear improvement in reading performance among all the students that were reassessed for the Learning Beyond Fifteen study, with the average reading score increasing 57 points from 2000 to 2009, which is equivalent to the difference in average proficiency scores for 15-year-olds in Canada and their counterparts in countries like Croatia, Israel, and Austria.  To put it in another context, the learning gains were equal to roughly one school year in Canada.  In 2000, 21.4 percent of Canadian 15-year-olds scored below proficiency Level 3 on the PISA scale, which indicates an ability to locate multiple pieces of information, make links between different parts of text, and relate it to familiar everyday knowledge.  By 2009, 7 percent of the test takers still scored below proficiency Level 3.

OECD (2012). Learning Beyond Fifteen: Ten Years After PISA

Examining the reading proficiency gains by demographic characteristics, Learning Beyond Fifteen finds that by age 24, women continue to outperform men by a slightly smaller margin than they did when they were 15 years old.  In almost all participating OECD countries, girls outperform boys in reading by a large margin.  The participating Canadian women achieved an average increase of 50 points in reading performance during the nine-year period, while males achieved an average increase of 63 points.  Similar to many other subgroups, the poorer-performing groups acquired reading skills at a quicker pace than the better-performing groups, but were still not able to close the achievement gap entirely.

This was the case when examining reading gains by family socio-economic background.  The evidence suggests that students from disadvantaged homes continue to have lower scores at age 24 than their more advantaged peers (by a difference of 50 percentage points).  A similar pattern was found for Canadian French speakers versus English speakers and rural students versus urban students, with French speakers and rural students narrowing but not completely closing the achievement gap by the time they were age 24.

What was quite interesting in this report is that twenty-four-year-olds with an immigrant background fully bridged the gap in reading performance.  These students scored an average of 524 points in PISA-15 while those born in Canada averaged 545 points.  In PISA-24, all students, regardless of their birthplace, averaged around 600 points.  Students born outside of Canada improved 77 score points from the time they were 15 years old until they were 24 years old, an improvement equivalent to more than one proficiency level on the PISA reading scale.  The authors point out that these results demonstrate that the appropriate integration policies can help to reduce, if not eliminate, differences in student performance, at least for immigrants in Canada.

OECD (2012). Learning Beyond Fifteen: Ten Years After PISA

The report finds, not surprisingly, that participation in some form of post-secondary education is consistently and substantially related to growth in reading skills between ages 15 and 24.  For example, students with a university degree at age 24 had an average score of 652 points in PISA-24, while those students with only a high school education at age 24 had an average score of 564 points, almost 100 points lower than college graduates.  When those same college graduates took the test at age 15, they had averaged 596 points on PISA, a score still substantially above the scores attained nine years later by those students that had not obtained any formal education beyond high school.

Students who spent four or more years in a higher education institute between ages 15 and 24 but did not complete a degree, still showed improvements in skills that were similar to or greater than (70 points or more) those skills observed among young people who did complete a college degree.

On the other hand, students that were poor performers at age 15 and entered the labor market soon after compulsory education tended to continue to be poor-performers at age 24 with their general rate of improvement being relatively modest.

This report also took a look at the factors that relate to improvements in reading skills when students were 15 to age 24.  From childhood to age 15, the report study finds that the strongest influences on reading proficiency are parents and the home environment along with the quality of teachers and the classroom-learning environment.  When students are older, the degree of control they feel over their life is strongly related to improvements in reading.   Independence and the capacity to make individual life choices is generally related to larger improvements in reading performance, particularly if it is coupled with participation in post-secondary education.

Young people who had the advantage of a supportive learning environment up until age 15 showed relatively slower learning improvements as they made their transition to independence.  On the other hand, those students that did not succeed in their school, made greater improvements if they experienced a life change, for example changing the status of their relationship (from single to married) or moving out of their parents’ home.

Other Reports of Note
Education Week Quality Counts 2012. “Canada Musters Resources to Serve Diverse Student Needs.”
This article, part of Education Week’s special 2012 Quality Counts edition focused on “The Global Challenge for Education,” examines Canada’s commitment to equality in its public schools, and particularly the provinces’ ability to provide a high quality education for their most at-risk students by managing school funding at the provincial, rather than the local, level.  Although Canada has a higher immigrant population and a higher proportion of students living in poverty than many other OECD countries, they have been able to integrate these students into mainstream classrooms while still giving them targeted support both in the classroom and out, with some districts even providing subsidized health services like vision and hearing screenings.  In addition to the article, Education Week has made a video, produced for the Quality Counts release event, as well as audio from the live event.

OECD. (May 2012). “Does performance-based pay improve teaching?”
Performance-based pay for teachers is a hot topic in many countries.  So this month’s PISA in Focus will be of interest to many of our readers.  The authors explain that,  “A look at the overall picture tells us that there is no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance-based pay schemes.”  But in countries with comparatively low teacher salaries (less than 15 percent above GDP per capita), student performance tends to be better when performance-based pay systems are in place, while in countries where teachers are relatively well paid (more than 15 percent above average GDP per capita), the opposite is true.  So for countries that do not have the resources to pay all of their teachers well, it is worth having a look at the experience of those countries that have introduced performance-based pay schemes.  This finding, of course, is consistent with our own finding in Surpassing Shanghai that relatively poor countries just starting out on the economic development curve that cannot afford to pay their teachers developed world salaries will tend to use Tayloristic management schemes because their teachers will not have the professional skills required to succeed in a professional work environment.  Conversely, the same Tayloristic management methods won’t work when a country is employing highly educated and trained teachers.  Put another way, blue-collar work organization is appropriate for relatively low-skilled teachers and for use in the early stages of economic development, but professional norms of work organization are needed as a country moves up the economic development ladder and begins to employ highly educated and trained teachers.  Only the latter are likely to produce world-class high quality, high equity education systems.

International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Attainment. (2012). “Policy, Practice and Readiness to Teach Primary and Secondary Mathematics in 17 Countries: Findings from the IEA Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M).”
Using findings from the 2008 Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M), this report examines country-level policies related to the preparation of future mathematics teachers, how these policies impact the participating countries’ teacher education programs and instructional practices, and the implications of these polices and practices for student learning. The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Attainment (IEA) published initial results from the TEDS-M study in 2009. The participating countries include Botswana, Canada (four provinces), Chile, Taiwan, Georgia, Germany, Malaysia, Norway, Oman (lower-secondary teacher education only), the Philippines, Poland, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Spain (primary teacher education only), Switzerland (German-speaking cantons), Thailand, and the United States.  According to Policy, Practice and Readiness to Teach Primary and Secondary Mathematics in 17 Countries, the countries that best prepare math teachers have implemented a number of common practices including rigorous math instruction for all high school students, including potential teachers; teacher-preparation programs that are highly selective and demanding; and an attractive profession with excellent pay, benefits and job security.  According to this study, Taiwan and Singapore top the list of the countries that do the best job of preparing math teachers and Russia also scored highly.  Poland, Switzerland and Germany did well but this is partially explained by their reliance on specialist teachers in the lower-grades.  The United States generally finished below this group but above other countries that scored below the international average.

OECD Education Working Papers. (May 2012). “School Funding Formulas: Review of Main Characteristics and Impacts.”
This working paper provides a literature review on school funding formulas across OECD countries.  It examines what kinds of school formula funding schemes exist and how they are used, in particular, for promoting the needs of socially disadvantaged pupils and how school formula funding systems perform according to equity and efficiency standards.  The paper discusses the difficulties of striking the right balance in school funding formulas between more or less weight given to local differences.  For example, when funding formulas give more consideration to the local costs of education and other local specificities, this can lead to more convoluted and obscure formula designs.  The authors also focus on the challenges of measuring how much it costs to educate students with a given background to a pre-defined standard and ensuring school autonomy while making sure funding is spent on what it was intended for.