From The Economist - Jan. 2016
Train those brains
Practically all young people now go to school, but they need to learn a lot more there
JASCHA DOKER IS a big man with a big beard, a nose ring and tattoos. His father is Turkish, his mother Austrian. He works as an electrician at the Salzburg Festival, a celebration of classical music in Mozart's home town. He is not an opera fan - he likes the orchestra but not the singing - yet he does his bit to bring Austrian high culture to a global audience.
As well as working, Mr Doker, who is 18, attends the Landesberufsschule, a vocational school. Classes mix theory with 5 hands-on practical work. One classroom has an oven and a dish washer; another has a mock-up of part of a production line; another lets students control an imaginary "smart building".
The school moves with the times. "We used to train lots of television and radio repair men, but now people just throw these things away," says Eberhard Illmer, the director. The basic philosophy, though, remains the same: the school works closely with local employers, who send their apprentices there to ensure that they acquire skills that are in demand. Asked if he fears unemployment, Mr Doker says: "I'm not worried about that."
Vocational schools in Germany and Austria have a fine reputation, and for good reason. They recognize that not every young person will benefit from a purely academic education. "When I was at school I got bored," says Mr Doker, "but the technical education here is great." Youth unemployment in both countries is half the average for the Euro area.
Not all education systems serve the young so well. At a village meeting in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, parents were told that after attending the village school for five years, most of their children could not read a simple story. Many could not even recognize the letters of the alphabet.
This came as a shock. One parent stood up and said to the headmaster: "You have betrayed us. I have worked like a brute my whole life because, without school, I had no skills other than those of a donkey. But you told us that if I sent my son to school, his life would be different from mine. For five years I have kept him from the fields and work...only now I find out that he is 13 years old and doesn't know anything. His life won't be different. He will labour like a brute, just like me." The headmaster retorted: "It is not our fault. We do what we can with your children. But you [are] right, you are brutes and donkeys. The children of donkeys are also donkeys."
One of the people at the meeting was Lant Pritchett, an American economist now at Harvard. He argues that Indian public schools are wretched because they are unaccountable. They have to meet government targets for enrolling pupils, but they do not have to demonstrate to parents or anyone else that the children are learning anything. Barely half the teachers bother to show up on any given day. A study cited in Mr Pritchett's book, "The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain't Learning", found that after eight years of school, 60% of Indian children could not use a ruler to measure a pencil.
The good news is that in recent decades all countries, rich or poor, democratic or despotic, have made huge strides in getting young people into classrooms. In 1950 the average adult over 15 had received just three years of schooling; by 2010 the figure had risen to eight. In rich countries it went up from six to 11 years over that period, and in poor ones it shot from two to seven. These are remarkable figures. Modern Zambians or Haitians spend longer in school than the average Italian did in 1960. Furthermore, university, once the preserve of a tiny elite, has become a rite of passage for the global middle class. Some 41% of 25-34-year-olds in rich countries now have tertiary education, up from 26% in 2000. Developing countries are catching up fast.
The bad news is that how much people actually learn in classrooms and lecture halls varies widely. In developing countries, which account for the majority of pupils, many schools are atrocious, PISA, the OECD's international benchmark for 15-year-olds' attainment in science, maths and reading, does not cover the poorest nations, but results in several low-to-middle-income countries are disappointing. A Finnish student is 170 times more likely than a Mexican one to be a "top performer" in the PISA science test. In the maths test, more than 60% of the Brazilians would be among the bottom 10% in South Korea. In most developing countries ranked by PISA, more than half the students achieved only very basic competence in maths. In rich countries only a fifth did this badly.
Those who cannot read or manipulate numbers earn less. Robert Barro of Harvard and Jong-Wha Lee of Korea University estimate that, on a global average, the wages of those who have completed secondary school are about 77% higher than of those with only primary schooling, and college graduates make 240% more. If developing countries are to realize the "demographic dividend" from a young, energetic population, those young people will have to be educated better.
Since the biggest gaps in test scores are between rich countries and poor ones, you might think that money played a big part. Yet "resources per se have little to no statistically significant impact" on how much pupils learn, concludes Mr Pritchett: Rich countries have doubled or tripled spending on schools since around 1970, to little effect. America spends twice as much as Poland, yet both countries' 15-year-olds get similar results on PISA.
South Africa spends more than Kenya but does much less well.
Many educational fads are harmful. One survey found that 85% of American parents thought they should praise their children to bolster their self-esteem, but studies suggest that undeserved praise makes children complacent. Amanda Ripley, the author of "The Smartest Kids in the World", describes how an American student visiting one of Finland's outstanding schools was surprised to see so few gleaming trophies on display.
Good school systems come in many shapes. Sweden and the Netherlands have voucher-like systems, where parents can spend public money on the private or public schools of their choice. South Korea has a centralized system in which public-school students also use private crammers to get through a high-stakes exam at 18. Finland went from also-ran to world-beater by insisting that only the brightest graduates could become teachers, whereas in America "almost anyone who claims to like children" can find a place on a teacher-training course, says Ms Ripley. And what works in one Country may not travel easily to another. For example, Dieter Euler of the University of St Gallen found that Teutonic vocational schools cannot easily be replicated in other countries where governments, firms and unions, do not have the same close relationship.
The quality of teachers clearly matters, and in countries with great schools they tend to be well paid. But if the system is dysfunctional, offering them more money is pointless. In parts of India teachers' pay is so high that people who have no interest in teaching pay large bribes to be hired.
Nearly all systems, public or private, produce some excellent schools. To improve results across the board, Mr Pritchett urges decentralization. Central governments should set standards and make sure that private schools are not preaching jihad, but headmasters should have the power to hire and fire teachers and good schools should be allowed to drive out bad ones. Crucially, performance should be independently measured. Brazil's education reforms after 1998 loosened federal control and let the money follow the child. As a result, Brazilian students achieved the largest gain on PISA maths tests in 2003-2012.
Overall, young people are better educated than ever before. But as H.G. Wells once put it, history is "a race between education and catastrophe". No nation can afford to slow down. ■