Andreas Schleicher: What Are The Keys To A Successful Education System? Andreas Schleicher created PISA, an exam that compares the knowledge of 15-year-olds from around the world. He says the test can help us understand why some countries perform better than others.

Andreas Schleicher: What Are The Keys To A Successful Education System?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about changing school, about how we can rethink education and even how different countries might be doing it better.

ANDREAS SCHLEICHER: I've been in schools in over 60 countries and seen a lot of variation in the way in which students learn, teachers teach and schools operate.

RAZ: This is Andreas Schleicher.

SCHLEICHER: Yes, my name is Andreas Schleicher. And I'm running OECD's global education comparisons at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

RAZ: Which means it's his job to evaluate schools around the world.

SCHLEICHER: There's still lots of walls between education systems. Education is still a very inward-looking, national business.

RAZ: So back in the 1990s, Andreas started to compare the way countries allocate resources for schools. And then he designed a test that would measure the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds - 15-year-olds from Albania to Vietnam. And he called it the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

SCHLEICHER: The PISA test is an international comparative assessment where we look at what students know but also what they can do with what they know. I think that's really what differentiates it from most traditional school tests, you know, where we test specific content knowledge. And in PISA, we were less interested in looking at whether students can reproduce what they've learned. And I'm more interested in whether they can extrapolate from what they know and creatively use their knowledge in novel situations because that's what the modern world really rewards people to do.

The modern world no longer rewards you just for what you know. Google knows everything. The modern world rewards people for what they can do with what they know, so we try to build our assessment around this, putting a high emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and the capacity of students to actually also understand the foundations of disciplines.

RAZ: Here's Andreas Schleicher on the TED stage.


SCHLEICHER: Look at how the world looked in the 1960s in terms of the proportion of people who had completed high school. You can see the United States ahead of everyone else. And much of the economic success of the United States draws on its long-standing advantage as the first mover in education. But in the 1970s, some countries caught up. In the 1980s, the global expansion of the talent pool continued. And the world didn't stop in the 1990s.

So in the '60s, the U.S. was first. In the '90s, it was 13th. And not because standards had fallen, but because they had risen so much faster elsewhere. So this tells us that in a global economy, it is no longer national improvement that's the benchmark for success, but the best-performing education systems internationally.

RAZ: Like, what countries are doing it right? Like, which countries seem to get it and educate their children better than others?

SCHLEICHER: Well, actually, you can find high-performing education systems in every corner of the world. You know, in Europe, you look to countries like Finland that are doing well. In North America, Canada is a great example of a high-performing and also highly equitable education system. And then you have in East Asia, Shanghai in China is sort of the poster child - Singapore, Japan. There are many different very successful models of education in many different cultures, in many different contexts. A lot less is related to wealth.

PISA showed us that the world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated nations and poor and badly-educated ones. You know, Vietnam, you know, a poor country with an excellent education system. We've also seen that spending per student as such explains very little in quality of learning. It's much more to do with how we invest the resources, how we attract the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms. And so I think that's been a lot of inspiration.

RAZ: So how do other countries spend their money compared with the U.S.?

SCHLEICHER: Well, I'll give you an example. You take China and the United States. They spend about a similar number of teachers for every 100 students. So the resources invested in education are pretty similar. But when you look at the class size, you can see the class sizes in the United States are comparatively small, and in China, they are almost double. And you ask yourself, you know, two countries investing similar resources have very different features. And PISA shows you what's lying behind this.

For example, in the United States, teachers, because they have small classes, have very little time for other things than teaching. If you are a teacher in Shanghai in China, you teach between 11 and 16 hours per week - about half what an American teacher teaches. But you spend a lot more time working with your fellow teachers to design lesson plans. You would observe somebody else's classroom. It's a completely different model of education. I think what PISA shows us is, how do education systems differ and to what extent does it influence the results?

RAZ: What about - I mean, is there any correlation between the diversity of a country and its outcomes?

SCHLEICHER: Well, there is to some extent. Diversity is certainly a challenge. It could be social diversity. It could be income diversity. It could be cultural diversity. And it's probably also the most rapidly growing challenge. In Europe, in the United States, there's a long history in this. But at the very same time, we also see that some countries are very good at moderating that kind of diversity.

So I think your northern neighbor Canada is a good example. You go to Toronto, where about almost half of the students have an immigrant background, and still, we can not see a performance lack between immigrant and non-immigrant students. So the system has become very, very successful in personalizing education in a way that the system is moderating inequality. In other countries, you know, unfortunately, the bitter truth is that education reinforces social disparities. We do see that as well.

RAZ: OK, so then what would be a better way for an American school to teach its students? I mean, would it be better for - like, how would they start to improve? What would they do?

SCHLEICHER: Well, you know, I think the first thing is to just raise the level of expectation. You know, one of the things that we see in PISA is that many American students think they are doing fine when, in fact, their results are just so-so. We also see that, you know, the students' self-beliefs are important. Once we ask students, you know, what do you think makes you successful in mathematics?

And we had the majority of American students saying, well, you know, that's all about talent. If I'm not a genius, I'm going to study in mathematics and I'm going to have to study something else. You ask that same question to a student in China or in Singapore and 9 out of 10 students tell you, if I study really, really hard, I trust my teacher is going to help me and I'm going to be successful.

So the belief in effort as a key to success is very important. The second dimension, I think, is quality of teaching. You know, most high-performing countries are very careful in how they attract the most talented people into the teaching profession, how they offer them interesting careers. They really credit high-status teaching profession where teachers have a high degree of professional autonomy, they work in a collaborative culture and they are there to frame good practice.

I think that is a big part of the equation that I think remains unsolved in the case of the United States.


SCHLEICHER: And, of course, the question is can what works in one context provide a model elsewhere? Of course you can't copy and paste education systems wholesale, but these comparisons have identified a range of factors that high-performing systems share. Everybody agrees that education is important. Everybody says it. But the test of truth is how do you weigh that priority against other priorities?

How do countries pay their teachers relative to other high-skilled workers? Would you want your child to become a teacher rather than a lawyer? How do the media talk about schools and teachers? Those are the critical questions. And what we have learned from PISA is that in high-performing education systems, the leaders have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education, their future, more than consumption today. And you know what's interesting?

I know you won't believe it but there are countries in which the most attractive place to be is not the shopping center but the school. Those things really exist.

RAZ: So, I mean, I'm assuming if you were to build a high school - and I'm sure you've been asked before. I'm sure people have said, please, build our high school for us - you would say, number one, you've got to have really high-quality, well-trained teachers. And they've got to be treated well. And number two, you've got to, you know, focus on a problem-solving curriculum, not a curriculum simply based on teaching facts.

SCHLEICHER: Absolutely. I think the latter is really, really important. You know, the world today, we want people to think out of the box to solve unknown problems, to use technologies that have not been invented to solve social problems that we don't know about yet. So I think the capacity and willingness of students to grow, I think, is very, very important.

And science content knowledge evolves very rapidly. But your capacity to think like a scientist, to sort of understand the structural features of a discipline, to think like a philosopher, to think like a mathematician, those features are of enduring value. So I do think we need to place more emphasis on this. And that demands a very different set of pedagogies and instructional practices.

I think that's what we see in high-performing education systems. And I would put a high premium on this, you know? We have 21st century technology, but we need to do more to develop 21st century pedagogy.

RAZ: Andreas Schleicher - he heads the program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. You can see his full talk at

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