The international comparisons show clearly that performance variations between schools and between students tend to be greater in those countries that channel kids at an early age into different levels of programs and schools
The German school system, for example, divides kids at as young as ten years into vocational and academic tracks. Children of white-collar parents are four times more likely than blue-collar children to enroll in the university track - even if they do not perform any better. While Germany’s policymakers have been pursuing educational reforms on many fronts, they shied away from tackling these structural inequities. While some officials claim they need to wait for conclusive evidence of socioeconomic disparities that will take at least a decade to collect, kids are being left behind. Many other countries show similar patterns; France did not even bother to publish PISA’s evidence on social inequalities between schools.
Similar patterns are visible in higher education. Among the 30 members of the OECD, most are sending more people to college, but some are gaining faster than others. Since 1960 South Korea has tripled its number of graduates, as a share of population, and rose from 21st to 3rd in OECD rankings. Most of Europe’s major economies, including France, Italy and the United Kingdom, just held their ground or fell behind. Germany dropped from 14th to 23rd.
These gaps are likely to widen. Most continental European countries are not making the investment required to create more university openings. Average government spending per higher-education student in the European Union is less than half of that in the United States. And Europe still tends to block universities from charging tuition, on the ground that making people pay will hurt the disadvantaged. The truth is that the higher-education spending in Europe is very regressive now, with working-class children highly underrepresented. In France and Germany, only about one third of all secondary-school grads go on to higher education.
Access to universities is much broader in other wealthy regions. In Northern Europe more than two thirds of secondary-school grads now go on to higher education, the result of massive public spending. The United States and many English-speaking countries, as well as Japan and South Korea, have opened higher education to more students by making those able pay for part of the costs. But quality in education is not only a question of money. The United States and Italy are ranked 1st and 4th on spending per student until the age of 15, but only 26th and 24th in terms of the performance of 15-year-olds. In contrast, Finland and the Netherlands ranked 15th and 14th on spending but 1st and 3rd on mathematics performance.
Europe’s school system has yet to become a modern-knowledge industry, in the sense of one constantly transformed by the latest intelligence on best practices. There is, of course, a large body of research about learning, but much of it is unrelated to real life learning. Even the relevant research has an insufficient impact because education is dominated by local practitioners working in isolation and relying on folk wisdom about what works. Central direction, which still dominates European schools, needs to give way to teacher engagement in the search for what works.
Some argue that leaving schools greater discretion will lead to greater inequality. The evidence suggests otherwise: Finland, which has freed schools and teachers to create a “knowledge rich” environment, is not only the top performer overall, but test performance varies little from school to school. And some of the most centralized European systems, including Austria, Germany, France and Switzerland, display some of the largest performance differences between schools.
Educational outcomes matter. OECD studies show that the money and time individuals spend on university qualifications pay dividends that are larger than real interest rates, and often significantly so. Moreover, the earnings gap between the well educated and the rest is a growing in most OECD countries. Not least, improved education helps to raise labor productivity and technological progress. Among OECD nations, a one-year increase in the average education level of the population raises economic output by 3 to 6 percent. Widening access to education is a smart competitive move.
Schleicher, Andreas - A Classless Act, in «Issues 2006», Nova Iorque: Newsweek, 2005, p 96-97.