Presentation of the PISA 2010 Results


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General

Washington, 7 December 2010
Secretary Duncan, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to present results from the OECD’s new PISA survey.

Education is the single most critical investment to raise the long-run growth potential of countries. In the global economy, the performance of education systems is the yardstick for success, particularly in light of the fundamental technological and demographic challenges that are re-shaping our economies.

By testing around half a million high school students from over 70 countries, which account for nine-tenths of the world economy, PISA provides the most comprehensive and rigorous international assessments of learning outcomes in education. 

By emphasising the creativity of students, specifically the ability of 15-year-old students to extrapolate and apply their knowledge to novel situations, PISA offers a unique assessment of students’ ways of thinking, ways of working and their career-readiness.

Let me share with you some of the key conclusions.

Best performers first

The new PISA identifies several top fliers. These are Shanghai, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, Canada, Japan and New Zealand. Of course, the precise ranking varies according to the test in question, ranging from reading literacy to mathematics, or science. However, these countries stand out as the strongest overall performers.

While cultural heritages and economic systems differ, all these countries share a common denominator. They all manage to have strong and equitable learning outcomes. In mathematics, more than a quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds can conceptualise, generalise, and creatively use information. Finland shows consistently high performance, regardless of where its children go to school.  

PISA provides measurable benchmarks of existing differences. It does not pick up one model. Instead, it offers many options, thus helping countries adapt ideas to their own conditions and set out their own priorities and policy targets. There is a lot we can learn from each other: from how to make students learn better, to how to make teachers teach better and school systems perform more effectively.

The stakes are huge. In some countries, improving the efficiency of the education system would be equivalent to gaining several years of schooling. This is not only a matter of resources. Indeed, PISA shows that two similarly prosperous countries can produce very different educational results.

For education authorities, this represents both a warning and an opportunity. High income countries cannot take for granted that they will forever keep their comparative advantage in “human capital”. As global competition intensifies and demand patterns change, they will need to work hard to maintain their edge. At the same time, PISA shows that countries with limited resources can improve their educational performance and aim for excellence. 

So, this is the main message from PISA: stay ambitious; work harder to reach your full potential, no matter how you come out in the picture.

Where does the United States stand in all this? 

Overall, the U.S. comes out as an average performer in reading (rank 14 in OECD) and science (rank 17) but the U.S. drops below the OECD average in mathematics (rank 25). Also, there is a very wide gap between the top 10% and the bottom 10% of 15-year olds in the U.S, similar to that observed between top and bottom performing PISA countries.

Unlike most other federal nations, the U.S. does not yet collect PISA data for individual States, but we understand that there are important regional differences in performance.

Gauging progress

Measuring performances over time highlights the crucial importance of policy choices in education.

Luckily, our ten-year experience with PISA allows us to offer some interesting insights in this regard, and the good news from our findings is that even in the short-time span of PISA, countries can make huge progress.

Consider Korea where average performance was already high in 2000. Yet, one reason for policy concerns was that only a small elite achieved excellence in reading literacy. Within less than a decade, Korea has doubled its share of students demonstrating reading excellence.

Another interesting example is Poland. The overhaul of the Polish school system dramatically reduced performance variability among schools over the past years, ultimately raising overall performance by the equivalent of more than half a school year. What Poland did was to remove a secondary school track designed for students with lower performance expectations. This eliminated the possibility for teachers and schools to turn away students from disadvantaged social backgrounds. They now have to offer high-quality learning opportunities to all students. 


The examples I have just mentioned underscore PISA’s greatest value: it serves as a source of inspiration for policy-makers.

It is in this spirit that Secretary Duncan asked the OECD to distil some of PISA’s key lessons. What lessons can be drawn from the top performing education systems? What can the U.S. do to learn from success stories?

That was in April. Today I am pleased to deliver Strong Performers and Successful Reformers, the report that was prepared to answer Mr. Duncan’s request. Let me share a few highlights with you.

First, make education a priority. A strong performer is a country that has made education one of its flagships. Yet, that alone doesn’t get you very far.

In some countries, students are separated into different tracks at an early age because of the erroneous notion that only a subset of children can achieve world class standards. However, PISA shows that those systems tend to be fraught with large social disparities and freeze such disparities over time. In top performing systems, most students achieve high standards.

Second, don’t be shy. High performing education systems do not refrain from setting out clear and ambitious standards. They are focused on the acquisition of complex, higher order thinking skills, which they align across the system. As a result, everyone has a shared sense of what is required to move on to the next academic level, in terms of content and performance. Students know what they have to do to realise their dreams and they put in the work that is needed to achieve them.

Third, teachers’ quality pays. Strong education systems pay careful attention to the profile of their teachers. Much like corporations, they make sure that their teaching force is the best.

Careful consideration must go into making the teacher profession attractive; recruiting and selecting teachers; rewarding and training them on the job; recognizing the best performers and helping those who have merits but are struggling to grow.

Fourth, the importance of autonomy. High performing systems provide considerable discretion to school heads and school faculties in determining content and the curriculum. Indeed, PISA shows that autonomy is closely related to school performance, provided that this is achieved under conditions of effective accountability. That said, we do not see a performance advantage of privately managed schools, once social background is accounted for.

Last but not least, equity is key. World class education systems deliver high quality learning consistently across the entire education system. To this end, they invest educational resources where they can make the most difference: by attracting the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms, by making effective spending choices that prioritise the quality of teachers.

The U.S. stands out as one of the three PISA countries where disadvantaged children from poor families have access to fewer teachers.

Yet, this disadvantage can be overcome. Even in the U.S., a quarter of 15-year-olds enrolled in disadvantaged schools reach the average performance standards of Finland.

Indeed, the U.S. has many assets to leverage public education.

  • One key is the amount of financial resources American citizens are willing to invest in public education -- the second highest level, when measured in per student terms, among PISA countries.
  • A second great asset is the United States’ history of ongoing and far-reaching reform in education. In many cases, school leaders, educators, governors, and lawmakers implemented sweeping changes. I welcome ‘Race to the Top’, which in little more than a year has had major effects, including on state legislations and the capacity of state systems to carry reforms.  It shows what can be achieved under conditions of effective leadership and incentives.
  • The third great asset is the American education system’s capacity to adjust and innovate. The U.S. educational system has been a global reference for countries in their quest for fresh, exciting and useful ideas in education.

So the U.S. is well-equipped to accelerate educational progress and demonstrate what can be learned from school systems within, and beyond, its own borders to boost student learning.

Secretary Duncan, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased that the presentation of the new PISA coincides with the OECD celebrating its 50th Anniversary; at 50, we strive to stay young and relevant. We are still developing our indicators, inventing new tools, increasing our reach. I am also especially pleased to share this valuable tool with you at a time when policy makers across the globe are debating how to revive growth and how to ensure a better distribution of its fruits. PISA shows that education has a place at the heart of this debate. I hope that this new PISA, will help you find new solutions, in the US as much as elsewhere. The future depends on us doing things differently, one doing things better. PISA is talking to us and telling us what has to be done. Let’s listen carefully and act swiftly.

Thank you!




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