Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The World’s Schoolmaster

How a German scientist is using test data to revolutionize global learning
Nigel Dickinson

Earlier this year, delegations from 16 countries and regions met at the Hilton New York for an unprecedented exchange of ideas and angst: an off-the-record summit on how to improve teaching. For nearly 10 hours, the education ministers of places ranging from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom sat beside their teachers-union leaders and haltingly traded stories of successes and failures. Even the Japanese delegation made it, despite the 9.0 earthquake that had rocked their country less than a week before. (They had slept in their offices to ensure they’d make their flights.)

One person at the table, however, was not representing any country: Andreas Schleicher, quietly tapping notes into his computer, was there on behalf of children everywhere—or at least on behalf of their data. And without him, the meeting never would have happened. A rail-thin man with blue eyes, white hair, and a brown Alex Trebek mustache, Schleicher works for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a bureaucrat without portfolio. And in recent years, he has become the most influential education expert you’ve never heard of.

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, consults with Schleicher and uses his work to compel change at the federal and state levels. “He understands the global issues and challenges as well as or better than anyone I’ve met,” Duncan said to me. “And he tells me the truth.” This year, U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove called Schleicher “the most important man in English education”—never mind that Schleicher is German and lives in France.

The story of how an introverted German scientist came to judge and counsel schools around the world is an improbable one. As a mediocre student in Hamburg, Schleicher did not particularly care about his classes—to the distress of his father, who was a professor of education. Later, at an alternative high school, teachers encouraged Schleicher’s fascination with science and math, and his grades improved. He finished at the top of his class, even winning a national science prize. At the University of Hamburg, Schleicher studied physics. He had no interest in his father’s field, considering it too soft. Then, out of curiosity, he sat in on a lecture by Thomas Neville Postlethwaite, who called himself an “educational scientist.” Schleicher was captivated. Here was a man who claimed he could analyze a soft subject in a hard way, much the way a physicist might study schools. At the time, 1986, the education establishment was dominated by tradition, theories, and ideology. “You had people dealing with every subject,” Schleicher tells me, “except looking at reality.”

Schleicher’s father did not approve. “His feeling was that you can’t measure what counts in education—the human qualities.” But Schleicher began collaborating with Postlethwaite anyway, creating the first international reading test.

Back then, countries subjected only small numbers of select students to such tests—or abstained from sampling altogether. “I remember everyone telling you, ‘We have the best education system in the world,’” Schleicher says. To his data-driven mind, this was madness. How can everyone be the best?

In April 1996, after Schleicher had joined the OECD, he and his colleagues pitched the idea of designing a smarter, more ambitious test than any that had preceded it—a way to shift the OECD from measuring inputs (like spending on schools) to outputs (how much kids learn). Many education ministers were skeptical, but Thomas Alexander, Schleicher’s boss, convinced them that their countries could not remain economically competitive unless they could measure what their students actually knew.

Ultimately, in the spring of 2000, nearly all 30 OECD members signed on, plus several other countries: 15-year-olds from 32 countries took the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The exam tested more same-aged students in more developed countries than any other. And it measured not students’ retention of facts, but their readiness for “knowledge worker” jobs—their ability to think critically and solve real-world problems.

The results were so stunning that international newspapers leaked the rankings. The United States rang in somewhere above Greece and below Canada, a middling performance we’ve repeated every round since. To the astonishment of the Germans, who had believed their system among the best in the world, Germany ranked even lower.

U.S. officials defended their schools—blaming poor performance on the relative prevalence of immigrant families in the United States. But Schleicher and his colleagues noted that native-born Americans performed just as unimpressively. In fact, worldwide, the share of children from immigrant backgrounds explains only 3 percent of the variance between countries. A country’s wealth does not predict success, either. Gross domestic product per capita predicts only 6 percent of the difference in scores. Schleicher also noticed, however, that in the U.S. in particular, poverty was destiny. Low-income American students did (and still do) much worse than high-income ones on PISA. But poor kids in Finland and Canada do far better relative to their more privileged peers, despite their disadvantages.

In Germany, the test became a household name and inspired a prime-time TV quiz show, The PISA Show. Even Schleicher’s father began taking his work more seriously. Meanwhile, Schleicher visited dozens of schools and pored over the data. He concluded that the best school systems became great after undergoing a series of crucial changes. They made their teacher-training schools much more rigorous and selective; they put developing high-quality principals and teachers above efforts like reducing class size or equipping sports teams; and once they had these well-trained professionals in place, they found ways to hold the teachers accountable for results while allowing creativity in their methods. Notably, in every case, these school systems devoted equal or more resources to the schools with the poorest kids.

These days, Schleicher travels the world with a PowerPoint presentation detailing his findings. It seems to have more data points embedded in its scatter plots than our galaxy has stars. When his audiences get distracted by the tribal disputes that plague education, he returns to the facts with a polite smile, like C-3PO with a slight German accent. He likes to end his presentation with a slide that reads, in a continuously scrolling ticker, “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion … Without data, you are just another person with an opinion …”

Still, on almost every continent, Schleicher and PISA provoke a chorus of critics. In the U.S., Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a former member of PISA’s governing board, calls Schleicher “a remarkably good salesman,” but says the test’s U.S. sample of 5,233 students in 165 schools is too small—and that the OECD should just collect data, not overreach by making policy recommendations too.

But Schleicher’s willingness to convert data into pragmatic advice is precisely what has made him so influential. “Andreas’s knowledge is more comprehensive, more relevant, more actionable than the kind of data you’ll hear from many researchers,” says Jon Schnur, who co-founded the U.S. reform group New Leaders for New Schools, and who has worked closely with the Obama administration. Oregon, Japan, and Germany now include PISA questions on their own standardized tests. Steven Paine, who until this year was West Virginia’s superintendent of schools, redesigned his state’s curriculum to make it more demanding—based in part on PISA findings. “We had set the bar too low,” Paine says.

Today, 70 countries collectively give PISA to representative samples of more than 500,000 15-year-olds every three years. A longitudinal study of 30,000 Canadian students recently found PISA scores to be more accurate than report-card grades in predicting which kids will go to college. The latest results came out in 2010, and for the first time the test included Shanghai—which trounced every single country. Schleicher credits Shanghai’s success in part to a policy of rotating the best teachers into the region’s worst-performing schools (the opposite of what tends to happen in the U.S.). The Shanghai delegation came to the New York summit to share its secrets, much to Schleicher’s satisfaction. “You could see, when the minister from Shanghai was speaking, everybody started to write notes,” he told me afterward. “It was incredible! Ten years ago, you know, everybody would’ve said, ‘We are unique. We have a specific culture.’ And now we understand that culture is created by what we do.”

That may be wishful thinking. Most Americans still believe that the interplay of schools and culture is a complex and hard-to-untangle knot. But Schleicher hopes to change their minds, partly by creating a test that individual schools can use to compare themselves with students worldwide; a pilot project is planned to launch next school year in 50 to 100 U.S. schools.

Ironically, Schleicher’s own three children currently attend public school in France, a country that houses the OECD’s headquarters but, according to PISA, has solidly mediocre schools. “It was a difficult decision. I don’t think the French school system is great,” Schleicher says, his voice trailing off. “You never really know whether that was the right decision,” he says, sounding suddenly like many American parents—worried about his children’s school but hoping for the best.

Presented by

Amanda Ripley is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and the author of the forthcoming book The Smart Kids Club: How Other Countries Saved Their Schools (And Taught Their Kids to Think).

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