Six founders of NCEE’s Superintendents Alliance make the case for proficiency based education. Read more.

Jennifer Craw
by Jennifer Craw

The recent report by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, “Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain,” published by the OECD, shows that even wealthy, developed nations can improve their economies by improving the quality of their education systems to allow every student to reach a basic level of skills. This is particularly true for the United States, but even those countries that already do very well on PISA can greatly increase their GDP through improving educational outcomes for all students, according to this new study. The authors suggest that achievement of level 1 (of four levels) on the PISA assessment for all students is a proxy for universal basic skills. The chart below shows the effect on GDP of attaining universal basic skills in each of the top ten performing jurisdictions on PISA 2012 and the United States, expressed as an increase in GDP over the working life of the students as a percent of current GDP.

GDPBasicSkillsSource: OECD “Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain”
Note: Shanghai was not included in the report’s analysis since there is no internationally comparable GDP data for the city.

In the case of the United States, a gain of 153 percent of GDP is the equivalent of over $27 trillion in current U.S. dollars over the working life of students. Even Estonia, which stands to gain the least in GDP proportionally, could add $14 billion to its GDP through helping each student achieve basic skills.

Part of the reason the U.S. stands to gain so much more than most of the top performing countries is that a larger portion of U.S. students are not yet attaining basic skills. The next chart shows what percent of students from the top performing countries and the U.S. scored below basic skills level on the latest round of PISA mathematics.

BelowBasicSkillsSource: OECD PISA 2012

The share of U.S. students scoring below basic on PISA mathematics is almost double that of Canada and more than three times that of Hong Kong. While the U.S. does have a large percentage of disadvantaged students which might partially explain low achievement, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Poland have even greater proportions of disadvantaged students. As the authors of this report point out, “The fact that the 10 percent most disadvantaged children in Shanghai outperform the 10 percent most advantaged children in large parts of Europe and the United States reminds us that poverty isn’t destiny.”

Increasing the proportion of students attaining basic skills on PISA is an achievable goal. In fact, several countries have already seen large improvements on this measure. The chart below shows the change in percent of students scoring below basic skills from PISA 2009 to PISA 2012.

ChangeinBasicSkillsSource: OECD PISA 2012

Five of the top-performing countries on PISA 2012—Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Estonia, and Poland—decreased the number of students scoring below basic since 2009. Poland, in particular, was able to decrease its proportion of students scoring below basic by 6.1 percent in just three years. In fact, since 2003, Poland has decreased its share of low performers by one-third—from 22 percent to 14 percent—all within less than a decade. Meanwhile, the percent of students scoring below the basic level increased by 4.4 percent in the United States from 2009 to 2012. And since 2003 the overall proportion of U.S. students scoring below basic has stayed the same: 25.7 percent in 2003 and 25.8 percent in 2012.

As Marc Tucker points out in this month’s Tucker’s Lens, improving the quality of education for low-achieving students would not only increase GDP, but it would also greatly reduce the growing income gap, ensuring a greater level of equality nation-wide, particularly in the United States. For more on the strategies that top performing countries are using to improve their education systems, visit CIEB’s website.