Worldwide education systems are failing- time for fundamental reform.

Humanity´s biggest priority should be education.

There is no “good education- anywhere.”

It is a well-known fact that there are national and regional differences in education quality. But we also came to believe that at least some countries and schools provide high-quality education for their students. There was a feeling that others could learn from them and catch-up.

OECD’s PISA studies measured national educational outcomes and seemed to provide such a learning opportunity. It identified high performers and allowed laggards to implement best practices. For instance, the Finish system was widely studied and inspired many educators.

Such comparative rankings are useful to motivate laggards but can also decrease the motivation of the leaders to become better. A misleading feeling of satisfaction and superiority can prevent more fundamental reforms. Moreover, such a ranking-based approach can be detrimental to overall quality development. If worldwide education systems were a total failure to being with, such rankings would do little to lift the overall performance. It would be like that old saying: “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed rules”.

This is exactly what happened. Media coverage of PISA Results only focused on comparative rankings, not the overall dismal educational outcomes. A nation’s education system was deemed to be good, as long as it was slightly better than others. The fact that they all performed badly was completely disregarded.

When you have a closer look at PISA results, it becomes clear that globally all education systems have been failing for decades. OECD consists of the richest and most developed countries in the world, yet only a few Asian cities (at least seem to) provide a halfway decent education to their citizens.

In those advanced countries “one in four students had difficulty with basic aspects of reading, such as identifying the main idea in a text of moderate length or connecting pieces of information provided by different sources” [1]

It is bad enough to have so many lacking even basic reading skills, but it is even worse that “less than 9% of 15 years olds in OECD countries are proficient in reading, meaning they can deal with abstract concepts or differentiate fact from opinion.” [2]

Only 1.3% of all students were able to reach the highest proficiency level in reading. The famous Finish system performed just slightly better with 2.4%. Only the Singaporean system produced significantly better results with 7.3% of its students having acquired advanced reading skills. [3]

It is the same picture when it comes to mathematics, as of 2018 only “2.4% of 15 years olds in OECD countries were capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning.” The leading Chinese cities and Singapore reached 16% and 14% respectively, showing that much more is possible.

Not surprisingly when it comes to science the results were even worse. “Only 0.8% of students have advanced science capabilities… They can distinguish between arguments that are based on scientific evidence and theory and those based on other considerations” [4]

It is not getting better

What is even worse than this terrible performance is that learning outcomes are not improving for already two decades, and this is despite huge investments and successful expansion of education in many countries.


In some countries educational outcomes have even started declining according to OECD PISA in 2018 “Seven countries saw declining mean performance across all three subjects: Australia, Finland, Iceland, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the Slovak Republic.”


These results show that we should stop obsessing about ranking tables, and instead focus on radically reforming education systems globally. Today only 1-2% of the population reach the education level that would be expected from our current technological development level. Our education systems are stuck in the past, and do not prepare the masses for the emerging future. It is a complicated world out there, and billions of people who cannot even differentiate fact from opinion are a danger to all humanity.


Educators do not like to be measured

The logical response to such dismal results would be to increase regular assessments and significantly overhaul the whole education system. New methods would be tested and if successful rolled out nationally. Such a test-and-learn framework would guarantee progress. There are educators who take this route, while others chose to protest measurements like PISA.

Unfortunately, quite a few educators, some of them leaders in their fields, chose to attack standardized testing instead of taking urgent action. One common criticism is that tests like PISA cannot cover all aspects of education “By emphasising a narrow range of measurable aspects of education, Pisa takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives like physical, moral, civic and artistic development, thereby dangerously narrowing our collective imagination regarding what education is and ought to be about.” [5]

According to these educators, tests like PISA increases the test levels for students and takes away the autonomy of teachers. In their words, PISA “harms our children and impoverishes our classrooms” [6] (OECD research proves that there is no correlation between the stress level and standardized tests[7])

In an open letter to newspapers leading academics ask for the postponement of the PISA test and criticize the OECD as aiming to prepare “young men and women for gainful employment”. They even go as far as accusing the OECD of educational colonialism. [8]

These critics are certainly right that PISA only measures simple skills and basic knowledge. It is true that it does not cover all aspects of education. However, it is also undeniable that PISA exposed serious deficits in our education system. We can’t just dismiss reading, mathematics, and science skills as only good for future employment. These are fundamental skills that should be the focus of any decent education system. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that an education system that fails in even such basic skills will perform better in more advanced ones.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that PISA exposed the poor performance of a highly regarded and self-conscious guild that is unaccustomed to criticism. It is a fact that without standardized testing educational outcomes can not improve. One cannot get better without knowing where one stand. Subjective assessments by teachers cannot be an alternative as they do not create comparable results. Without objective testing, one cannot devise and test more effective teaching methods. Basically, without standardized testing, the education system itself can not learn. Whoever is against testing is also against learning.

That means that instead of questioning we need to increase standardized testing significantly and expand it to subjects previously thought to be unmeasurable. For instance, new technology makes it possible to even measure creativity or collaboration. It is high time that educators make use of this opportunity.


Educators are reluctant to embrace technology

This brings us to another reason for the failure of worldwide education systems. Education technology has the potential to provide students with realistic, entertaining, and personalized learning experiences. For instance, education software can adapt to each student´s learning level, and make sure that they remain engaged. Computer simulations and virtual reality can bring real life into the classroom and allow access to otherwise expensive or dangerous tools. Technology can also decrease teacher workload by taking over administrative tasks or enabling ongoing assessment.

Despite all these potential advantages educators have been traditionally rather unwilling to engage with technology. According to recent research, almost 50% of global educators both at the K12 and University levels expressed their lack of knowledge of education technology.  They also spend too little time evaluating the benefits of learning technology. [9]


Negative perceptions and attitudes of educators have been a serious obstacle to change. Teachers (and parents) remained sceptical about the use of technology in education. For instance, they believed that “online learning was inferior to traditional learning methods” [10]  Governments should take most of the blame for these attitudes, as they failed to prepare educators to make the best use of technologies, letting them end up with “weak technological skills and training”. [11]

Governments also failed to create favourable conditions for ED-Tech companies to create effective products. For one, they did not ensure productive collaboration between schools and ED-Tech companies. This had a serious impact on the effectiveness of educational software as they were “designed without sufficient input from their intended users -teachers and learners.” [12] In some countries data privacy laws proved to be a serious obstacle as software depends on the availability of quality data.

Investment also remained woefully little: only 3% of education spending was dedicated to education technology. [13] Since ED-Tech is very R&D intensive the low amount of investment decreased the attractiveness of the whole sector.

In summary, “the global education sector has been one of the last to embrace digital technologies” [14] which at least partially explains the poor performance. It is rather ironic that educators who are supposed to be in charge of learning, have been so reluctant to learn themselves.

Central planners continue to overload Curriculums

Educators might have been slow to use new technologies and have been critical about standardized testing, but they have been busy in expanding curriculums. New subjects are constantly added, resulting in overcrowded curriculums. This is a negative development, for “students need to learn deeper and not more; their learning time should not be extended, nor should students learn at a surface level. “ [15]

Curriculum overload has serious consequences: “An overloaded curriculum can put pressure on teachers to teach all the material, potentially risking a ‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ content coverage. Students also may feel stress and pressure, while lacking the time in or out of school to complete all required assignments. This stress, in turn, can undermine students’ ability to engage in deeper learning or the productivity or quality of learning time may be lower.” [16]

One way of easing the pressure on the curriculum is to “embed cross-curricular themes or competencies into existing subjects”. For instance, topics such as “sustainability” can be integrated into language education or other humanities. [17] Similarly, skills such as collaboration can be practiced in project-based work or financial literacy with mathematics. [18]

Ultimately, even such cross-curricular teaching will not be sufficient to prevent overcrowding. State officials need to control their urge to dominate curriculums and create more space for students’ own choices. The obligatory curriculum needs to be reserved for absolute essentials. Thanks to education software more electives can be offered without additional costs. Such a choice-based education system would certainly be more relevant for students and increase their engagement levels.


What needs to be done: focus, measurement, and technology

The starting point for fundamental education reform should be to identify the few essential topics that should be left in a much smaller obligatory curriculum. If we are to force all students, independent of their interests or skills to learn a certain topic, it better be essential for society or fundamental for all students. This strict criterion would eliminate the majority of all subjects in current curriculums. Secondly, learning objectives for essential topics will need to be defined extremely precisely, and standardized measurement would need to be provided before that topic can be included in the curriculum. Without such measurement, it would be impossible to identify students´ learning levels, which would be unacceptable for an essential topic. “Stop teaching what you can not measure. “

The rest of the curriculum would consist of electives, giving students much more choices. These electives should not be defined by central committees like today but based on input from students and employers. The failure of Communism has clearly demonstrated the perils of central planning.

Precise learning objectives and predefined standard measurement would allow external providers to develop much more effective tools. If companies know exactly how they will be tested, they can experiment with innovative tools. This could lead to competitive markets, where providers race with each other to develop more effective solutions.

In a nutshell, worldwide education systems need to start becoming learning systems. To achieve this, we need to provide feedback loops and financial incentives for education providers. Governments need to precisely define what they students to learn, based on a much broader consultation process, and let the rest be taken over the markets. This outdated model of management by central committees needs to be abolished and replaced by innovative competition.

The education community has shown remarkable resistance to change. It has been slow to take up new technologies and continues to resist standard measurements. Basically, they resist learning. The society has been tolerant to this attitude because they shared the same sentiment. However, unlike the common citizen, educators should be leading learning, not obstructing it.

Education is not just another field; it is the foundation on which society is built. Educators who resist fundamental reforms can be accused of being responsible for increasing inequalities, unemployment, environmental problems, and even the demise of democracies. It’s high time that we remind education policymakers of their sacred duty and motivate them to fight their inner urge to resist change.

Sources and References