Data Must Inform

A score in an exam to a student can be a source of either pride or frustration. To a teacher, exam scores should reflect in some way an assessment of both teaching and learning inside the classroom. To education policy makers, exam scores are data that must inform and guide policy. Exams are assessments of learning. Denying this simply because of a distaste for testing is wrong. The ugly side of testing comes mainly from assigning exams extremely high stakes. Testing is looking into a mirror. What makes such useful exercise bad is what exams sometimes make us do or not do.

Exams must inform and guide future action. This is true not only at the policy level. It equally applies to a student. An exam must not discourage but instead inform a student of what steps need to be taken to improve future performance. The usefulness of the information depends not only on the exam score but also on a knowledge of factors that come into play. Correlations are necessary to pinpoint what factors are important. A poor exam fails to inform if a student is unable to see beyond the score. International standard exams carry the important objective of informing countries of the strengths and weaknesses of their educational systems. To achieve this goal, the exams are combined with other pertinent data that define factors that may influence learning. International exams, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), all share this goal. It may look like a contest, but in reality, it is an assessment. Looking at the scores and seeing where one's country places in the rankings is not informative, except for those who equate patriotism to cheer leading. Where a country sits in the ranking is only a small piece of the data. A country which does not examine what future steps must be taken in light of the results is equivalent to a student who simply receives a graded exam back without contemplating on what future steps or actions the score is recommending.

Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), explains in a TED video how PISA results can be used by a country as a guide to improve public education.

Andreas Schleicher
Photo downloaded from OECD.
In the video, Schleicher starts by highlighting what good learning outcomes mean as provided by scores in PISA:

Photo captured from TED video
The vertical axis in the above figure is a measure of the reading performance of students as provided by PISA. These are the exam scores. To gain useful insights, these scores are combined with other measures. In the graph above, that other measure is equity. The horizontal axis is a measure of how strong the impact of socio-economic factors are. The PISA also contain data regarding the income level of the family a student belongs. This information is then combined with the score of the student to determine how strongly a family income correlates with student performance. A strong correlation is an indication of a strong impact. With this analysis, four quadrants become visible. The red quadrant (lower left hand corner) represents countries where students perform poorly in reading and socio-economic factors have great impact. Most of the students in countries in the red quadrant are poor readers, and children from poor families in these countries have less access to education. The green quadrant (opposite corner) is entirely a different picture. Countries in this quadrant have students who generally perform well in the reading exam and income levels are not important to gain access to education. Everyone has access to education, and apparently, a good education. Both rich and poor students are learning to read in these countries. Schleicher is pointing out in the figure above that it is possible for a country to achieve both equity and excellence in education. Countries in the red and lower yellow quadrants both have serious problems with reading, but those in the red place poor students at a disadvantage since their education is decided by their socio-economic background. Countries in the red therefore face two problems, excellence and equity. Countries in the lower yellow quadrant have problems across the board (poor and rich) and should focus on excellence. It is worth noting that there are not that many countries falling in the upper yellow quadrant, and those that do belong to this quadrant, are not really that high on the reading scale. The top four countries in reading belong to the green quadrant where equity is likewise high. The figure therefore suggests that excellence can not be achieved without equity.

Schleicher is able to place more information on the figure above, by drawing bubbles to represent the countries within a quadrant, with the size of the bubble being proportional to how much is spent on education.

Photo captured from TED video
A quick glimpse at the figure shows that countries in the quadrant of high equity and excellence, do not necessarily spend the most on education. In fact, there are large bubbles inside the quadrant of low equity and low performance. This figure is therefore suggesting that it is not how much is spent on education that counts, rather, it is how money is spent on education that counts. Of course, there seems to be a minimum amount of spending that is required. There are really no small bubbles in the good quadrant. It may be useful then to look deeper at the countries that do make the grade to see how these countries are spending on education, and Schleicher uses South Korea as an example:

The red dots represent the level of education spending of a country compared to the mean spending. South Korea, highlighted in the above figure, spends the most on teacher salaries and instructional hours. These add significantly to the costs of education in South Korea, but in terms of total spending, South Korea only spends as much as Luxembourg. South Korea saves by having a relatively high pupil:teacher ratio. It is therefore a question of priorities. Luxembourg spends as much as South Korea does, but the reading scores of students of Luxembourg are not even that close to those of South Korea. South Korea spends wisely. South Korea has set priorities that work to their advantage.

Schleicher, of course, reminds everyone that reforming schools is not a "copy and paste" deal. Simply copying what Finland, South Korea or Singapore do is not a guarantee for success in education. However, there are general features among countries in the green quadrant. These features are perhaps key elements for a successful educational system. One of these features is respect for the teaching profession. How does one measure respect for the teaching profession? Salaries speak volume, of course. Schleicher asks:
Everybody agrees that education is important. Everybody says that. But the test of truth is, how do you weigh that priority against other priorities? How do countries pay their teachers relative to other highly skilled workers? Would you want your child to become a teacher rather than a lawyer? How do the media talk about schools and teachers?
How does the Aquino government in the Philippines treat the teaching profession? The answer perhaps lies in the following:
ACT TEACHERS Party-List Representative Antonio Tinio today called on the Aquino administration to immediately pay public school kindergarten teachers, some of whom have not been paid for nine months. 
“Unpaid labor is slave labor,” said Tinio. ”The usual saying is that public school teachers are overworked and underpaid. But in the case of these Kindergarten teachers, they are not paid at all. We call on MalacaƱang to ensure that all Kindergarten teachers are paid immediately.”
One can read the entire statement in "Teachers’ solon calls for immediate payment of Kinder teachers unpaid since last year."

It is true that the Philippines is not a wealthy country, but so was South Korea decades ago. The same is true for Singapore and Finland. These countries simply understand the right priorities.

The following is the TED video of Andreas Schleicher:


  1. part of this is the local govt code, because these new teachers are to be paid, in part, from LGU funds.

    i'm wondering why tinio neglected to mention this fact...

  2. Public school teachers in the Philippines are employees of the Department of Education, not the local government. Here is a comment I received today from an actual public school teacher in the Philippines:

    "One good aspect of the k to 12 is that kindergarten must be handled by a permanent teacher. This school year, our school had one extension position for kinder. This coming school year we will be having two. Unfortunately, two of our kinder teachers will be facing the same dilemma that you are stating, prof. For us it's incompetence! For them, it"s financial constraint. That's one big problem with our govt agencies, whenever a problem arises, it"s a way to crave for more finances. But, the problem stays. Well, i'm not surprised anymore. It's more fun in the phils."

  3. not in this, for kindergarten. google. it. the budget must come from LGUs. even tinio knows it, yet didnt mention it.

    "Act Teachers Representative Antonio Tinio on Monday said the 45,000 teachers were hired and were being paid by local government units (LGUs).- See more at:"

  4. The 45,000 number corresponds to a different set of teachers. In one municipality, for example, a local government would support additional teachers in high school (because of overcrowding or large pupil:teacher ratios) - these teachers are not on DepEd's payroll. I know this specifically since I have attended some local school board meetings. Kindergarten, since this is mandated by the Kindergarten act are on the national roster. The 3000 peso honorarium was set by DepEd. Teachers hired by the local government are paid according to what the local government can afford so the salary here varies from one locality to another.

  5. The problems regarding kindergarten salaries are not new. These have been cited in Human Rights Online Philippines, for example.

    DepEd does not deny this - you can look up news articles in 2011 and 2012, where DepEd provides excuses. Kindergarten is mandated by a national law so its funding rests on the national government.


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