VoxEU Column Productivity and Innovation

Efficient education strategies in Europe: What can we learn from an international comparison?

Written January 2006: What is the key to excellence of a nation’s education system? New data suggest that governmental efficiency is critical. This implies that one cannot just copy educational programmes from one country to another. Programmes that work in highly efficient countries might fail in nations with less efficient public administrations.

There seems to be wide agreement about the importance of education. Many studies have focused on micro aspects, i.e. how to motivate students and teachers and how to overcome educational and social barriers, like socio-economic status, family education level, ethnic background, disability and gender, etc. However, important insights can also be gained by looking at macro data, i.e. by comparing the performance of different countries in terms of educational achievements. This note will point to an interesting pattern that suggests a new line of research.

The basic message from the data is that one key parameter that distinguished member countries is the efficiency of their governments. This implies that one cannot just copy educational programmes from one country to another. A programme that might work in a highly efficient country (e.g. one of the Nordics), might in reality work quite differently in another country with a lower degree of efficiency in its public administration; the same programme might thus not give the same results.

The remainder of this note provides some basic data and some very first preliminary results. These results are highly tentative, but also highly suggestive. Much more research is needed to determine whether the results reported below are spurious or represent an important mechanism that has so far not been sufficiently explored.

An alternative approach

There are many ways to measure the performance of educational strategies. One simple way, which allows for international comparisons, is to use the results of the PISA exercise recently run by the OECD, which includes almost all of the EU-15 (and some of the new member countries). The PISA results give the average of test scores of high school students in mathematics, science and reading. This note uses average scores in mathematics, which are the least ‘culturally loaded’, to illustrate an important result.

The key question often asked is: what factors lead to stronger educational achievements (as measured by the PISA scores)? The first factor that comes to mind is the amount a country spends on education. However, this factor does not seem to be decisive, as can be seen by looking at the data for educational expenditure (as % of GDP) and educational achievements reported in chart 2 below. The correlation between these two variables (as measured by the R2) is only 0.3, implying that the amount of resources (public plus private) a country spends on education is not a key factor in determining the educational achievements of it high school students.

If the quantity of spending on education is not decisive in determining educational achievements, one should perhaps look at the quality. Quality in this context should mean the efficiency of the given spending on education. The efficiency of a government is of course difficult to measure objectively. However, there exist numerical indicators resulting from extensive survey work done by international institutions. The indicator used here comes from the World Bank and is called ‘government effectiveness’, see Kaufmann et al. (2005) for more details.[1]

Using this indicator, one finds immediately a rather strong result: there is a very strong correlation between government efficiency and educational achievement. Chart 2 shows this visually. The high value for the R2 suggests that intra-EU variations in government efficiency alone explain 90% of the variations in student achievements. Research on how educational strategies can foster cohesion should thus not focus only on the amount of the resources available for education and the design of educational strategies in general, but also on the efficiency with which they are, or can be, implemented.

The basic message suggested by this simple result is at the same time simple, and somewhat discouraging. If general government efficiency is the main determinant of educational achievement, it implies that partial reforms within the education sector are unlikely to improve student achievements fundamentally. Many aspects of public administration need to be overhauled and improved if one wants to improve educational outcomes as measured by the PISA results. This is likely to require time and a general consensus. Partial reforms that improve, for example, the distribution of resourcesby introducing more competition and greater transparencycan be designed and implemented in a rather short time and should have a positive impact. But they have to be implemented by the existing public administration, whose quality cannot be improved overnight. Hence even the best designed reforms are likely to have only a limited impact, as long as the overall quality of public administration does not improve. This should be the ultimate aim of all reforms, but it is more difficult to achieve as it requires a ‘long march’ through the institutions.

[1] This is how Kaufmann et al. (2005) define government effectiveness: "In 'Government Effectiveness', we combine responses on the quality of public service provision, the quality of the bureaucracy, the competence of civil servants, the independence of the civil service from political pressures, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to policies. The main focus of this index is on 'inputs' required for the government to be able to produce and implement good policies and deliver public goods. "

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