by Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General for the OECD
Last week, UNESCO and six other UN agencies convened world leaders in education in Incheon, Republic of Korea, to establish the post-2015 development priorities for education. They could have hardly picked a better place to push the international community to significantly raise education ambitions so that high-quality learning will become a reality for all.
Korea provides an amazing example of how education can leverage social progress and become the key agent of change. Two generations ago, Korea had the same level of economic development that Afghanistan has today, and one of the least-developed education systems. Today, Korea is one of the driving forces of the OECD, and Korea’s school system comes out on top of our global PISA metrics for the quality of education.
Korea shows us what is possible in education. This isn’t a story about money; it is a story about getting priorities right. Our TALIS data show that in Korea, it is teachers, not lawyers or economists, whose profession is most revered. Part of Korea’s success is that its policies keep the teaching profession both financially and intellectually attractive. Whenever in its history Korea had to make tough choices between smaller classes and better teachers, the country always chose the latter.
Korean parents and children see hard work and perseverance as the key to success. This is because they go to schools where teachers expect every child to succeed, not just those from wealthy or privileged backgrounds. All of this is mirrored in the PISA results: 20% of students from the poorest families in Korea outperform the 20% of students from the wealthiest families in the United States. Clearly, poverty doesn’t need to be destiny.
And better education outcomes can help to improve income and reduce poverty. The OECD estimates that if every 15-year-old in lower-middle income countries achieved at least basic literacy and numeracy skills, these countries could generate six times their current wealth over the working life of today’s school children. That means that the rewards to better education dwarf any conceivable cost of improvement. Even in OECD countries, modest improvements in the quality of schooling would generate more wealth than the total amount we spend on our schools today. Our best bet to make education free for tomorrow’s children is to provide today’s children with better education.
The message here is simple: there is no shortcut to improved learning outcomes in a post-2015 world where knowledge and skills have become the global currency. And there is no central bank that prints this currency. We cannot inherit this currency, and we cannot produce it through speculation; we can only develop it through sustained effort and investment in people – both young and old. And for those countries struggling to provide high-quality education, the economic output that is lost because of poor education policies and practices leaves many of them in a permanent state of economic recession.
What is most impressive about Korea is that it has never become complacent. Next year, PISA will publish its first global comparison of student well-being. PISA is going beyond subject-matter knowledge and skills to include creative, social and global competencies in its international comparisons. Why? Because countries like the Republic of Korea push us to do so. They are telling us that they have figured out how to teach mathematics and science and want to move on to ensure that students don’t just have a solid foundation of knowledge in key disciplines, but also develop creative, critical thinking, collaborative and global skills, mindfulness, curiosity, courage, leadership, empathy and resilience. Many Koreans know that they may not come out on top on these measures right away, but they understand how central these broader competencies will be for the country – and for the world – in the long run.
Last but not least, Korea is now helping others follow suit by devoting a large share of its development aid to education. Again, that is a smart choice because people here are figuring out that the future of Korea may depend even more on the success of schools outside its borders than on education in-country.