PISA provides Turkey with good news, bad news, and lessons

Published in Today’s Zaman December  22, 2013 (with Turan Kayaoğlu)

Two weeks ago, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released country-level results from its 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). What typically follows in most news coverage is handwringing and awkward explanations, as few receive the hoped-for good news.

In this regard, Turkey was no different. Critics of the government have highlighted Turkey’s low rankings — among the 65 countries that participated in PISA, it ranked 42nd in math, 45th in science and 41st in reading. Moreover, Turkey’s poor showing has barely budged over the duration of the Justice and Development Party’s rule.

Yet Turkey’s results are much more encouraging than it might appear and even merit celebration, because Turkish students’ scores, if not Turkey’s ranking, have increased significantly.

Of all the participating countries with 10 years or more of PISA results, Turkey had some of the largest gains. Ten years ago, the average Turkish 15-year-old taking the PISA demonstrated math skills that were one to one-and-a-half years below that of your typical 15-year-old OECD student. The 2012 results, on the other hand, indicate that this achievement gap between Turkish and other OECD students has been halved. In reading and science, Turkish students are catching up to their OECD counterparts at an even more remarkable pace.

A striking feature of Turkey’s gains is that they’ve occurred at the same time that enrollment and retention in school has increased dramatically. Ten years ago, only about one out of every two Turkish 15-year-olds was still in school, while today about three out of every four are.

Active participation in today’s knowledge economy requires strong academic skills and Turkey can feel encouraged by its progress. Equally important, however, is how those skills are distributed across the population.

One of the most promising trends in Turkey is that the variation in educational outcomes among Turkey’s 15-year-olds has noticeably declined. This is an excellent sign that the nation is succeeding in developing an educational system that levels the playing field for all Turkish youth. In fact, PISA results reveal that Turkey registered one of the sharpest declines in the importance of students’ socioeconomic background on their academic performance. Today in Turkey, a student from a family with a low socioeconomic background is far more likely to show strong math performance on the PISA than are similar students in the US and they are twice as likely to do so as their counterparts in Greece and Israel.

Of course, youth in Turkey experience different family influences than do youth in wealthier OECD countries, where parents have benefited from more and richer educational opportunities.  To this end, PISA researchers adjusted the test results to account for these differences and after doing so concluded that Turkey’s students perform about at the OECD average. Another way of putting this is to ask: What if the average student living in an OECD country were to be educated in Turkey? How would they fare? The data suggest that they’d do no better or no worse in Turkey than if they were schooled in their own country.

No country should be satisfied with “no better or no worse,” and this includes Turkey. Every country should aspire for improvement and on this front, Turkey has become a model.

And how exactly has Turkey achieved this success? Over the last ten years, the central government has assumed a stronger role in education. Its education spending tripled over the last 10 years. It has dramatically expanded primary education and invested in new schools, especially in remote, rural areas. It has also focused on standards, strengthening them for all. The government has invested in libraries, computers, teachers, textbooks and smaller class sizes. The lesson here is that a strong, centralized educational system can bring rapid improvements to education.

But these gains are not solely attributable to the central government, as Turkish civil society has also been actively expanding educational services. Prep schools, or dershanes now exist throughout Turkey, and “reading rooms” have expanded free educational opportunities for youth in the eastern and southeastern regions of the country.

On the education front, there is clearly still much work ahead. For one thing, Turkey’s quite remarkable progress has been achieved without an increase in the low number of its students who are high achievers in math. The country still invests far too little in early education. Turkey also does a poor job of tracking the academic progress of students from an early age and thus fails to recognize the academic potential of too many students.

On this score, we would like to point to one lesson from PISA that Turkey stands to benefit from: the importance of providing schools with greater autonomy. This is a lesson that school systems around the world are embracing. England, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Poland and even — at a snail’s pace — the US, are all moving in the direction of devolving authority to their schools. Evidence from PISA and elsewhere indicates that greater school autonomy offers an inexpensive way to significantly improve the quality of education provided to students.

A strong central role in education in important, but it has its limits. If Turkey learns this lesson, its students will soon be competing head-to-head with those in other OECD countries.