International Reads: New Program at the World Bank Benchmarking Education Systems

As part of their comprehensive set of education initiatives and strategies, the World Bank has recently created a System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results (SABER) program that seeks to determine the policies that predict success in national (or sub-national) education systems.  Over the next few years, SABER will collect a full complement of data on multiple education policy areas (each broken down into numerous policy goals, levers and indicators) in a large set of both developing and developed countries and economies around the world. Individual countries can use the data to examine and benchmark their progress, and draw broader conclusions about the nature of successful global education policies. The data, alongside numerous thematic, regional and country-specific reports, will eventually be collected and presented on a publicly-accessible web site hosted by the World Bank.

Although the project has just started, the World Bank has already produced numerous products based on the information they have collected thus far.  One of these reports, Strengthening Education Quality in East Asia, was published in December 2011 and presents data in a wide range of SABER’s assessment areas: teacher policies, school autonomy and accountability, private sector engagement, vocational tracking, information and communication technology, and tertiary education.  The authors of the report examine 13 countries and economies in East Asia, rating their policies in each area as either latent, emerging, established or advanced, while also examining overall trends in educational policy shifts in the region.  This report represents an example of the types of benchmarking and comparisons the data collected in the SABER project will be able to facilitate, and is well worth a read, particularly for those interested in education systems in East Asia.  Another report produced with SABER data, published in August 2011, is particularly relevant now, as the international education community recently turned its attention to the teaching profession at the second International Teaching Summit in New York.  This report, authored by Emiliana Vegas and Alejandro Ganimian, is titled, “What Are the Teacher Policies of Top-Performing and Rapidly-Improving Education Systems?,” and it lays out teacher policies based on empirical evidence that they have collected and existing studies on this topic.

In their report, the authors rely both on data collected directly from participating countries and economies as well as information from multiple databases set up to compare international student performance.  Using these multiple sources of information, the authors selected a set of 20 countries that they considered to have the most successful education systems in the world.  From there, the authors analyze these countries’ and economies’ teacher policies in order to tease out commonalities that indicate best practices.  The term “successful” when defining education systems is especially important here.  The 20 education systems that Vegas and Ganimian chose to highlight are not necessarily worldwide top-performers.  Instead, they are classified into four categories, each with five members.  The first is “top-performing and rapidly improving;” this group includes Hong Kong, Canada, Finland, Belgium and South Korea.  The second group is “top-performing;” Japan, Taipei, Singapore, the Netherlands and Hungary receive this distinction.  The third group is composed of “rapidly-improving” systems that have made long-term gains: Chile, Iran, Luxembourg, Israel and New Zealand.  And the final group consists of systems that have shown rapid improvement over the short term: Ghana, Armenia, Lebanon, Indonesia and Mexico.  The classification of these systems as “successful” rather than “top-performing” is important, because it allows for an analysis of policies that have helped systems improve alongside the policies that have been in place in top-performing countries for a long time.

SABER – Teachers, the arm of the broader SABER program focused solely on teaching, analyzes 10 discrete policy areas:

-    The requirements to enter and remain in teaching,
–    Initial teacher preparation,
–    Recruitment and employment,
–    Teacher workloads and autonomy,
–    Professional development,
–    Compensation,
–    Retirement rules and benefits,
–    Monitoring and evaluation of teacher quality,
–    Teacher representation and voice, and
–    School leadership.

For the purposes of this report (and the broader analysis that the World Bank is conducting with SABER), SABER has identified eight policy goals on which they collected data.  The authors view these policy goals as “best practice” policies a country should have in place or try to establish.  These policies include:

-    Setting clear expectations for teachers,
–    Attracting the best into teaching,
–    Preparing teachers with useful training and experience,
–    Matching teachers’ skills with students’ needs,
–    Leading teachers with strong principals,
–    Monitoring teaching and learning,
–    Supporting teachers to improve instruction, and
–    Motivating teachers to perform.

Each of these goals has been linked to “policy levers,” which are defined as “actions that governments can take to improve.”  Levers are linked to specific indicators.  For example, for the policy goal “motivating teachers to perform,” the levers are: having minimum mechanisms in place to hold teachers accountable, rewarding high-performing teachers, and sanctioning low-performing teachers.  The indicators in this case range from things such as “is teacher absenteeism taken into account in teacher performance evaluations?” to “do high-performing teachers get better chances of promotion?” The goal of this report is to provide an analysis of these various layers, from broad policy goals down to specific indicators, to provide a portrait of what the most successful systems are doing.  As the authors point out in their introduction, “the impact of many reforms depends on specific features of their design.”  They give the example of teacher merit pay: in some countries, this has proven successful; in other countries, it has not.  It is only by analyzing how merit pay is implemented, from the way teachers are evaluated to the types of incentives and administrative procedures used, that governments hoping to borrow these policies can best determine how to implement them.

While data has not been published yet on a number of the indicators, several insights emerge from this report.  Vegas and Ganimian find, for example, that in successful education systems, just 30-50 percent of teachers’ working hours in primary school and 25-40 percent in secondary school are devoted to instruction, suggesting that these countries place a premium on lesson preparation rather than classroom hours.  With regard to teacher pay, they find that starting salaries range from 80-120 percent of the GDP per capita, while average pay falls between 100-200 percent of GDP per capita, even in the “rapidly improving” countries.  While education researchers have long known that top-performing countries prioritize lesson planning and teacher collaboration and development, as well as paying their teachers well, the SABER data provides a portrait of how these policies are enacted, and suggest specific benchmarks that countries can meet in terms of how they structure statutory work hours or how they position teacher pay relative to other salaries.

Another interesting set of findings deals with teacher evaluation.  The authors find that in most successful systems, teachers have at least one and as many as three internal evaluations annually (evaluations done by school principals and peer review), while external evaluations (school inspections) are somewhat deemphasized.  Teacher evaluations in these systems tend to rely on a combination of information drawn from student achievement data, peer reviews and principal observations, while data gleaned from school inspections are used only in a minority of successful systems.  Teachers are generally expected to be able to demonstrate innovative teaching practices, strong classroom management, and subject-specific knowledge in addition to subject-specific pedagogical skills.  The ways in which teachers are evaluated has been a serious topic worldwide, with many education systems seeking the perfect blend of internal and external oversight.  While not promoting any specific format, the SABER data does shed light on how teacher evaluation is being done in countries with some of the strongest and rapidly improving education systems in the world.

While this new initiative from the World Bank is highly ambitious and impressive in its scope, it is important to note that in this early stage of the work, the data collection activities have been driven to some degree by pre-determined categories that define top-performance.  In future reports, it will be important to keep a close eye on whether or not these pre-determined “best practice policies” are borne out by the evidence.  As this initiative evolves, Top of the Class will be sure to continue to cover new reports and findings from this comprehensive source of information about important issues in education worldwide.

Other Reports of Note

OECD (March 2012). Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century: Lessons From Around the World.
This publication underpins the 2012 International Summit on the Teaching Profession by summarizing research about what can make educational reforms effective and highlighting reforms that have produced specific results, showed promise or illustrated imaginative ways of implementing change. The report, like this year’s summit, is organized around three interconnected themes including developing effective school leaders, preparing teachers to teach 21st century skills, and the issue of teacher demand and supply.

OECD (March 2012). The Experience of New Teachers – Results from TALIS 2008.
This report examines the working lives of new teachers through the TALIS 2008 survey of lower-secondary school teachers. New teachers are defined as having two years or less of teaching experience.  In most countries, new teachers assume virtually the same teaching responsibilities as more experienced teachers, but they report that they often lack the necessary classroom management skills for effective teaching and learning. Their classrooms often have insufficient time devoted to teaching and learning and poorer disciplinary climate.

EI Research Institute (March 2012). The Future of the Teaching Profession.
This paper is a review of the available evidence on the relationship of the teaching profession to societies and governments globally.  It reviews possible next steps that governments, communities, and the teaching profession itself could take to enhance the learning, efficacy, and status of teachers.  It illustrates how policy has been shaping the nature of the practice, often with the effects that limit teachers’ professional judgment and which may, in the process, constrain student achievement.  Most importantly, drawing on evidence from international research, this study offers alternative propositions for system redesign, providing vignettes of breakthrough practices from around the world.

OECD. (November 2011). Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the World.
The 2011 International Summit on the Teaching Profession is the basis for this report; the authors summarize the evidence that underpinned the summit and highlight some of the major lessons to be taken away from that meeting.  The chapters are organized around the recruitment and initial preparation of teachers; teacher development, support, employment conditions and careers; teacher evaluation and compensation; and teacher engagement in education reform.  In each of the chapters, the authors delve into problems faced and the strategies employed by participating countries, pulling out particularly effective or interesting techniques that have policy implications for other OECD countries and economies. They argue that top teaching forces are not the result of cultural respect for teachers but of certain, deliberately formulated policies.  They also advocate for a high level of teacher responsibility and a prominent, highly-engaged role in education reform.

Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics (October 2011). Teachers’ Pay and Pupil Performance, Paper No. CEPCP352.
This article, a summary of a longer report titled “If You Pay Peanuts, Do You Get Monkeys?”, examines how teacher salaries are determined across OECD countries with an eye towards explaining how the real and relative levels of teacher compensation affect the quality of a country’s teaching force.  Using OECD data and their own methodologies, the authors find that there is a statistical correlation between teacher salaries and student outcomes, and argue that a 10 percent increase in teacher pay would result in a 5-10 percent increase in student performance.  They end the article with a series of policy recommendations related to their findings.

The Grattan Institute (February 2012). Catching up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia.
Australia’s Grattan Institute examines East Asia’s four top-performing education systems: Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai and Singapore in light of the fact that these systems are not among the world’s top spenders.  The report also highlights that their success is dictated not only by culture and tradition, but by a commitment to equity and excellence.  Just a decade ago, Hong Kong was ranked 17th in the world in reading in the PIRLS assessment while Singapore was ranked 15th, and both countries have since rocketed to 2nd and 4th place, respectively.  The authors of this report find that while many countries set common goals, the difference between the top performing countries and others is that the top performers pay very close attention to implementing those goals at the classroom level.  The report includes a detailed comparative analysis for each of the East Asian countries, Australia and the United States.  In addition to the full report, the Grattan Institute has produced a 33-page executive summary.