Skills – How different education systems fare in equipping individuals with foundational skills

This study set out to examine how different education systems fare in equipping individuals with foundational skills. It is well acknowledged and accepted that skills beget skills, and that foundation skills will help individuals regain new skills quickly in a fast changing technology-rich environment. The lack of ability to re-learn new skills prevents individuals from taking advantage of technological advances and from fully participating in the labour market. Thus, the strength of initial cycle of formal schooling in cultivating foundation skills in literacy and numeracy becomes a concern for policy makers, and an important issue to examine for researchers. In particular, education systems differ substantially in the level of tracking students by ability or career aspirations, and the prevalence of vocational education. These two aspects of school system designs are likely to affect skill accumulation in important ways, e.g. through peer effect or curriculum content. This study investigated how these features of formal education systems contribute differently to the accumulation of foundational skills in literacy and numeracy across education systems.

Two policy-relevant questions are addressed:
1. How are education system features such as early tracking and vocational education orientation correlated with the distribution of skills?
2. How do education reforms towards de-tracking and opening up university access affect individuals’ skills and the skill distribution in the long run?

To do so, this study coupled PIAAC 2012 and 2014 data with data on education system characteristics and education reforms to examine these relationships. Results suggested that education systems with strong orientation towards vocational training exhibit high mean scores in both numeracy and literacy. These systems also demonstrated compressed upper part of the skill distribution compared to education systems that are not vocational- oriented. These patterns were related to the high quality of compulsory education of vocation education oriented systems, and smaller skill gap between college-educated individuals and those with only high school diplomas. By analysing the background information collected by the PIAAC, results also indicated that young adults in high VET countries such as Germany and Austria are more frequently exercising advanced mathematics skills such as algebra or formulas than young adults do in countries such as the United States and Canada.

With the data at hand, this study could not distinguish whether the high performances of vocational education focused systems were due to their educational system design. Yet, pairing the PIAAC data with education reforms data on raising tracking age and opening up university access showed interesting results.

The analysis on the impact of education reforms towards easing university access for vocational high schools suggested that these reforms significantly affected individuals at the lower deciles of the skill distribution rather than the top decile when numeracy was concerned. Thus, these reforms reduced skills inequalities between individuals at the top and bottom of the numeracy skill distributions.

The age at which tracking takes place was not found to have a significant effect on the average performance in numeracy. This is consistent with studies using longitudinal data of a single country. For instance, Kerr, Pekkarinen and Uusitalo’s (2015[9]) found that the de-tracking reform had no effect on the mean performance in the arithmetic or logical
reasoning tests in Finland.

In examining the effect of changing tracking age along the skills distribution, results from this present study suggested that raising tracking age positively affected individuals at the bottom three deciles; yet the effects on individuals at the top deciles were negative. Overall, postponing tracking significantly reduced skill inequalities both in literacy and numeracy. The reduction comes from significantly increase skills of individuals at the lower half of the distribution.
It is worth noting that the majority of these 17 European countries being examined changed compulsory schooling laws around the time that the tracking age changed. So the coefficient estimates of changing tracking ages captured the combined effects of multiple mechanisms.

This exercise answered the questions this paper proposed to investigate, and it also leaves remaining questions for further investigation when richer individual longitudinal data becomes available. For instance, these results call for further examination of the black box of early tracking. One pattern observed in this study is that countries with high levels of tracking have less dispersed skill distributions at the upper half. Empirical studies such as Green and Pensiero (2016[5]) and Borgonovi et al. (2017[6]) shed light on different patterns of skill evolution among countries with varying levels of tracking. However, without longitudinal micro-level data, it is hard to further analyse how patterns of skill distribution can be attributed to the tracking feature of education system design. Moreover, other features of an educational system might interact with tracking or de- tracking policies in an important way. A field study by Duflo, Dupas and Kremer (2011) suggested that teachers’ efforts can crucially affect the success or otherwise of reforms that target the tracking age. Providing incentives to teachers to tailor their instruction level and to teach to the median students, even low-achieving students in the lower track would benefit from tracking (Duflo, Dupas and Kremer, 2011).

Thiemann (2017) also focused on the school design and distribution of students’ performances. She developed a model of student decision making that shows that it depends on the culture of competitiveness in a country or region whether it is optimal to choose a school design with ability tracking or comprehensive schooling. Taking into account students with heterogeneous abilities, Thiemann (2017) showed that the average performance in competitive cultures is maximised under comprehensive schooling and in non-competitive cultures under ability tracking. Segregation of abilities in non- competitive cultures, however, leads to a higher dispersion of performances.

These recent empirical and theoretical work related to tracking indicate that much is still unknown about tracking itself and the effects of tracking on student performances or measured skills. This paper can be seen as setting the stage for future research on examining the long term effects of early tracking on skills.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at OECD iLibrary | Education systems, education reforms, and adult skills in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)


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