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Education for the future - Promoting changes in policies and practices: the way forward

 

Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at the Education Ministerial Round Table, UNESCO

10 October 2009 - UNESCO, Paris, France


Director General, Madame Chair, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning:

I am pleased to be part of this session on “How to promote changes in policies and practices”, as this is one of the greatest challenges to improve education and the very essence of OECD work in this field. Thank you very much for the invitation. We have brought with us the ”highlights” of our yearly publication, “Education at a Glance”, as well as some very specific publications on, for example, “Education for students at risk and those with disabilities in the Baltics and South East Europe”, or “Green at Fifteen”.

     Education for the future - Promoting changes in policies and practices: the way forward   

The current financial and economic crisis is one of the biggest transformations of our lifetime. It is defining a tough new world. Thus, we need to revise our educational policies, to adapt them to such new reality where factors like high unemployment, growing inequalities, stronger competition, fewer jobs, enhanced interdependence, new business ethics, constant innovation and, if we get it right, “green growth” are becoming the new pointers for our societies of the future.


We therefore need to prepare for such a challenging future. This is where education comes in and becomes critical.


1. Rising skills: a first crucial target

We are currently facing the greatest job crisis of our lives. The average unemployment rate in the OECD area could approach 10% by 2010.  Youth unemployment has soared to 20-30% in some countries. This figure translates into 57 million people out of a job in the OECD zone. The number of unemployed is even larger in developing countries, and is sometimes hard to track because of the phenomenon of informality.

Education and training are key elements to our response to this crisis. If we want to provide jobseekers with the re-employment assistance they require, and minimise long-term unemployment, we need to emphasize training.


As we documented in the most recent edition (the 29th) of our “Employment Outlook”, the job prospects for those with few qualifications are deteriorating rapidly in this crisis environment. Across OECD countries, over 40% of young people who have not completed secondary school are not employed. This is more than the double of the youth unemployment rate. Many of those who become unemployed stay unemployed for a long time. New graduates face serious difficulties in finding jobs and enterprises cut training opportunities in the vocational area. All because of the crisis.


And yet, we have powerful evidence that education is the key to addressing the economic and social challenges of our times, including a way to get out of the crisis faster. We continue to see rising economic and social benefits for those who are skilled, as well as deteriorating opportunities for those without adequate education.


We have made calculation on how worth it is for one to get higher education. It is enormously positive. Actually, there is a considerable earnings premium for people with degrees over their working lives, which averages now $186,000 across OECD countries. Even when you hold such benefits against what governments and individuals spend on education, the net public return from an investment in tertiary education is highly positive. For individuals, it pays to invest in education. You clearly have a very positive costs / benefits ratio.


You can look at the other side of the coin too: the economic loss imposed by poor educational performance might be even greater than the output shortfall in the current economic crisis. For example, if the United States had closed the gap regarding performing education systems such as Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher (equivalent to 9 – 16% of GDP).


There is no doubt that education systems have responded to the rising demand for better skilled people. Indeed, the volume of educational activity has expanded at an unprecedented pace. University graduation rates doubling from 20% in 1995 to almost 40% in 2007, in the OECD area. In China and other emerging markets, the rate of expansion has been even faster.

Producing more of the same qualifications cannot be the answer when the nature of the skills that matter is changing too.


2. Education systems have to put greater emphasis on 21st Century skills

Our economic growth is increasingly driven by innovation, making skills obsolete at a much faster pace than before. This is why Ministers called upon the OECD to develop an Innovation Strategy that looks, among other things, at how education and training can develop the skills that matter for the world to come. They also more recently gave us a mandate to develop a Green Growth Strategy. Innovation and Green Growth clearly go hand in hand.

How can schools and universities prepare people for a world where work can be digitized, automated, outsourced and green?

The response lies in education. The key to success is no longer simply whether you can reproduce something you have learned, but whether you can extrapolate from what you know and apply your knowledge in a novel and changing setting. This shows that if students learn merely to memorise and reproduce knowledge and skills, they risk being prepared for jobs that are in fact disappearing. The problem is that this is precisely what many schools have focussed on for so many decades.

Of course, state-of-the-art skills in a field will always be important. Innovative and productive people generally have specialised skills. But there are other important competencies that education needs to focus on. Let me mention three:

First of all, in our schools, students typically learn individually and thus, at the end of the school year, we certify their individual achievements. But the more globalised and inter dependent the world becomes, the more we need great collaborators and orchestrators, not isolated individuals, no matter how well they do. We need to form people for a more inclusive world: people who can appreciate and build on different values, beliefs, cultures. Inter-personal competencies to produce inclusive solutions will be of growing importance.

Second, the conventional approach in school is often to break problems down into manageable bits and pieces and then teach students how to solve each one of these bits and pieces individually. But in modern economies, we create value by synthesising different fields of knowledge, making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated. That requires being familiar with and open and receptive to knowledge in other fields rather than our own field. But apart from Japan and perhaps the Nordic countries in Europe, there are few incentives for teachers to collaborate across disciplines.


Third, if we log on to the Internet today, we can find everything we are looking for. But the more content we can search and access, the more important it is to teach our students to sort and filter information. The search for relevance is very critical in the presence of abundance of information. We also need the capacity to explain content in one area to people working in other areas. 

The 21st century schools therefore need to help young individuals to constantly adapt and grow, to develop their capacity and motivation, to expand their horizons and transfer and apply knowledge in novel settings.

This crisis is exposing the gaps in our education system. For example, nowadays people need a much better financial literacy. They need to be able to think in terms of scenarios, weigh risks and probabilities, and assess the short-term and long-term economic impact of today’s decisions.

Our relation to climate change is another example. Technological innovation and well-targeted policy instruments are essential. But ultimately, green growth will rely on people’s behaviour and on their own individual understanding of its social and environmental impact.

We can extend the list further but the point is that, whatever competencies are considered relevant for success in modern societies, our educational policies and our schools need to adapt to them but mostly, to provide them.

One important issue for example is that children nowadays don’t want to become scientists, they prefer to become football players or rock stars.  We are running out of vocation, out of the future.


3. The importance of education reform: learning form each other

And thus, we must ask how efficiently are our educational policies adapting to the new global circumstances? Not very well, I should say. This is a key question for the future of our nations.

In OECD countries, political leaders have demonstrated a commitment to reforming education systems.  But if we are to keep public policy credible, it is important to make sure that reforms actually do change policies and practices. And here is where we have some worries.

A growing body of evidence and statistics on education systems and outcomes ─ from sources like the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) ─ show that the goals of education reforms are not always materialising. There is a broad consensus on the goals but the degree of execution is not the same. But there are surprising gaps in our knowledge of how to make that happen. The political economy of reforms in the field of education is enormously difficult. Breaking the status quo is not easy.

Overcoming active resistance to change in educational policy is one of our central challenges. We have much to learn from each other to address this challenge.

At the OECD, we have been comparing the effectiveness of our educational policies and reforms for many years. These international comparisons have helped us identify our common challenges and best practices.

We have learned, for example, that teachers and school leaders are still not being systematically prepared to use performance measurement and diagnostic tools to identify students in difficulty and constructively address their learning needs. And they spend too much time in administration issues or in addressing discipline problems of individual students.

But we have also learned that change is possible: by shifting public concern away from the mere control over the resources and content of education toward a focus on outcomes; by moving from “hit and miss” policies to establishing universal high standards; by moving from uniformity to embracing diversity and individualising learning. And we have identified the best practices to produce these changes.

We have seen, for example, good success stories: like the Scottish government’s major reforms, earlier this decade, which started with an overhaul of the teachers training and salaries. Teachers then became advocates and agents of further reform.

We have seen countries like Mexico where the government recently embarked on a series of far-reaching reforms to curriculum, examinations, and teacher training, evaluation and certification, based on OECD benchmarks and exchange of best practices.

We have seen countries like Finland whose reforms focused on teachers’ selection, remuneration and standing in society, with the results that Finland always comes out at the top. There is usually a trade-off between teachers’ pay and the size of the classes, which requires a careful balancing act. 


It is no longer enough for national education policy makers to gauge education improvement against their own past outcomes. They have to keep an eye on how much other countries are improving as well.  This is the value of multilateral cooperation. This is why these international conferences are so important. This is why we will continue our fruitful collaboration with UNESCO to provide the cross-cutting policy expertise needed to support governments in addressing these challenges.

Dear Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We need to empower the future generations with new tools to produce a better world; to adapt our educational policies to a new, more competitive and globalized reality; to identify our leads and lags, compare our know-how and prepare to learn from each other through enhanced multilateral cooperation. Remember: “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” May these words by Eric Hoffer stay in our minds as we try to prepare for the future. This is probably an exaggeration, as being learned is of great importance to become a learner.

I will close my speech by thanking Mr Matsura, with whom I had the privilege and satisfaction to work. I am proud of the work we shared with you. Together we have made a difference. I wish you good luck and present you my congratulations.

Thank you very much for your attention.

 

 

 

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