CfP: International comparison of basic education policies

The Zeitschrift für Weiterbildungsforschung, or Journal for Research in Adult Education, is planning a special issue on the ways in which large scale surveys such as PIAAC are influencing the debate on the best policies for promoting basic adult skills. The editors asked members of the editorial board to circulate the call for papers, and I have pasted it it below.

The journal publishes in English and German, is refereed, and is open access. The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2016, and the issue will appear in August 2016. For further information on the journal see www.springer.com/journal/40955 („Submit Online“).

International comparison of basic education policies

Editors: Alexandra Ioannidou / Josef Schrader
report

Ever since the PIAAC data (OECD 2013) as well as the “leo. – Level One Study” in Germany
(Grotlüschen/Riekmann 2012) were published, the highly developed industrial and knowledge-based society’s failure of securing a minimum of basic competences for all members of society and stabilizing those competences throughout life can no longer be denied. In addition, these studies confirm the connection between social status, participation in continuing education and available competences. In this large scale study, competences were measured, which are classified as indispensable for cultural and social participation as well as employability in each society.

Within the German discussion, those skills are often referred to as basic education, whereas in an international context various different versions of the literacy concept prevail. Both concepts can be regarded as relative, contextual and dynamic terms, based on current social requirements and subject to constant change (Tröster, 2000). Due to the different perceptions of various stakeholders, this dynamic and relational term is difficult to determine.

In the light of the large scale study’s findings, over the last years the scientific debate of the basic education concept has gained in importance along with the education policy debate on compensatory functions of basic education and literacy as well as securing a minimum level of education and competences for all. As a result of the current immigration caused by flight and expulsion and the subsequent expectations of integrating these refugees, the challenges for research, politics and practice of continuing education are increasingly intensified.

During the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003–2012), a literacy and basic education
network was constituted in Germany with various stakeholders from federal government and states, continuing education organisation, social partners as well as the German Federal Employment Agency. In addition, a national strategy was developed, which was transferred into the National Decade for Adult Literacy and Basic Education proclaimed in September 2015.

As the interim results gained in the DIE project “EU-Alpha” indicate, several other European and non-European countries have observed similar developments. They point to the influence of  international and supranational organisations on national policy and practice in the field of basic education.

Until now, little research has been conducted on the national and international reaction of
education, labour, social and integration policy to the problems pointed out by empirical
education research and the resulting operational success. This requires multi-level analyses, which unite system and governance structures with micro data from relevant studies on adult competences (e.g. PIAAC) in an international comparative perspective.

It was often verified that processes of educational disadvantage have a cumulative effect during life, continuing education enforces social selectivity with “soft” and “hard” selection mechanisms, and regional contexts are also significant for educational chances (Tippelt/v. Hippel 2005; Bremer/Kleemann-Göhrig 2011; Schlögl et al. 2015; Martin et al 2015). Less information is provided on how precisely factors and constellations on the system and stakeholder level influence continuing education participation and programmes of basic education or the methods of successfully implementing the objective of “Literacy for All” (United Nations). Which constellation of stakeholders, governance structure, continuing education, labour and welfare systems copes most effectively with the challenges mentioned above?

So far, there is no systematic overview on the effects of governance, structure, education,
labour and welfare policy on the level and structure of adult basic skills. Current literature
research regarding this topic only revealed isolated studies on policy programmes in the field of literacy and basic education but few studies, which connect competence assessment to control mechanisms and governance structures.

Against this background, the planned issue of the Journal for Research on Adult Education
refers to the current research approach in the field of basic education policy but also looks at innovative research approaches. Basic theoretical or empirical research is to be presented, particularly research with an international comparative approach. In addition, case studies from various countries are requested.

Contributions are invited with emphasis on the following issues:
– theoretical articles which cover the dynamic and partly relational term of basic education
as well as its empirical registration/measuring (competence modelling and measuring in
basic education)
– theoretical or empirical research on the connection between basic education competences and continuing education, labour and welfare policy in the country
– empirical research which identifies successful political approaches and the integration in the specific national institutional system based on data and case studies in order to point out methods to strengthen basic skills successfully

References

Bremer, H., & Kleemann-Göhring, M. (2011). Weiterbildung und „Bildungsferne“. Forschungsbefunde, theoretische Einsichten und Möglichkeiten für die Praxis. Essen. http://www.uni-due.de/imperia/md/content/politische-bildung/arbeitshilfe_potenziale. [18.02.2016].

Grotlüschen, A., & Riekmann, W. (Hrsg.). (2012). Funktionaler Analphabetismus in Deutschland. Ergebnisse der ersten leo. – Level-One Studie. Münster: Waxmann.

OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD
Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264204256-en

Schlögl, P. Iller,C.& Gruber, E. (2015): Teilnahme und Teilnahmechancen an formaler und nicht-formaler Erwachsenen- bzw. Weiterbildung. In: Schlüsselkompetenzen von Erwachsenen. Vertiefende Analysen der PIAAC-Erhebung 2011/12, Publisher: Statistik Austria, Editors: Statistik Austria, S.81–97 [Available through ResearchGate, 18.02.2016]

Schrader, J. (2015): Large Scale Assessments und die Bildung Erwachsener. Erträge, Grenzen und Potenziale der Forschung. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 61 (2015) 3, S. 410-428

Tippelt, R./V. Hippel, A. (2005): Weiterbildung: Chancenausgleich und soziale Heterogenität. In: ApuZ, 37/2005. S. 38-45

Tröster, M./Schrader, J. (2016): Alphabetisierung, Grundbildung, Literalität: Begriffe, Konzepte, Perspektiven. Bonn

Tröster, Monika (2000). Grundbildung – Begriffe, Fakten, Orientierungen. In Monika Tröster (Hrsg.), Spannungsfeld Grundbildung (S. 12-27). Bielefeld: W. Bertelsmann Verlag. Available at: http://www.die-bonn.de/esprid/dokumente/doc-2000/troester00_01.pdf [17.02.2016].

Keeping it in the family: how parents’ education shapes their children’s schooling

dingSome time ago I bookmarked a paper by Ruichang Ding, a researcher from Beijing Normal University. Applying advanced statistical methods to data from the OECD’s survey of adult skills, Ding tried to find out how far people’s success in education reflected the attainment levels of their parents.

Before summarising Ding’s findings, I want to make a point about method. In order to measure educational level, Ding had to resort to formal qualifications; while we have additional data for those who took part in the survey, there is no alternative when it comes to the parents. And while qualifications systems vary widely, the OECD surveyed adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries. In order to compare the results across countries, then, we have to use a standardised way of comparing qualifications, and Ding – reasonably enough – adopted the OECD’s own standard classification.

All that said, Ding’s findings are easy to summarise. First, as expected, he found that in all countries, today’s adults have better average qualifications than their parents. However, this gap varies considerably between different countries: the educational gap between generations is very low in Sweden and Finland, and very high in Spain and the Czech Republic, with England/Northern Ireland (Wales and Scotland chose not to join the survey) coming in above the average.

Second, he shows that in each case, the parents’ qualification levels are on average closely related to those of today’s adults. Once more, though, there are differences between nations. The relationship is closest in Slovakia and the USA, and weakest in Finland; the UK is among a group of countries (Ireland, France, Italy, Poland) that are clustered above average. Ding concludes from this that ‘intergenerational educational mobility in Finland would be relatively larger’, and correspondingly that it is rather low in the USA.

Third, and from my standpoint most interestingly, income inequality seems to be an important factor in explaining these patterns. Ding tests for other factors including poverty levels, levels of public spending on education, and average levels of wealth, and found no evidence of any correlation with intergenerational educational transmission. In the case of income inequality, Ding finds a very clear correlation: ‘countries with the high level of inequality had some of the lowest mobility’. Here, the UK and USA are marked by very high levels of income inequality and low levels of educational mobility.

I think this is an important paper which contributes to our understanding of social mobility and its constraints. The main findings support the argument of English researcher Andy Green, who with his colleagues has used different techniques to analyse the OECD survey data, coming to similar conclusions about educational inequalities. If we are to tackle these blockages to social mobility, then these findings suggest to me that investing in family learning for the least advantaged really should be a much higher priority than it is at present.

Learning in later life – extending the OECD skills survey beyond 65

Many people, myself included, are very interested indeed in the findings of the OECD’s adult skills survey. And it has already become clear that there is much more to come, both from the OECD team, but also from other researchers who are analysing the data independently.

Like any piece of research, though, the OECD survey has limitations. One, particularly important for anyone interested in learning right across the life course, is that the sample was confined to adults of standard working age. I was delighted, then, to learn that the German Institute of Adult Education had collaborated with researchers from two universities to conduct a parallel survey of adults aged 66 and over.

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Competencies in Later Life – the German study – was designed so that the quantitative findings are comparable with those of the main OECD survey. CILL also went beyond it. While the results are still being analysed, preliminary results are available, and they make fascinating reading. More detailed findings were presented at a workshop in Bonn, and it seems pretty clear that extending the OECD instruments to cover older adults was a well worth while exercise.

Some of the findings were predictable. For example, the survey confirmed that average skill levels continue to fall with age, with IT competencies falling particularly sharply. While this is exactly what we might already expect from the OECD findings for the under-65s, it is still helpful to have clear evidence that this is indeed the case, with obvious implications for policy and practice. The study also showed that even among older adults, the level of their parents’ education has a powerful influence.

For me, though, the most interesting finding concerned the lifelong influence of initial education. The study showed that there were many variations in the literacy and numeracy competences of different groups, but when the researchers controlled for initial education, these variations tended to disappear.

For example, men on average showed stronger competences in both areas than women, but after controlling for initial qualifications, the numeracy gap was much smaller, and the literacy gap vanished. This is, of course, a generational effect, which is a product of the different participation rates in tertiary education of men and women in past times.

The study also explored the ways in which people use the skills of literacy, numeracy and computer competences in later life. Drawing on qualitative as well as survey data, the study shows the continuing importance of these skills – as well as others – in the everyday lives of older adults, whether they are still in the labour market of not.

More evidence on the benefits of adult learning – the OECD Adult Skills Survey

Plenty of people have commented on the relative performance of different nations in the OECD’s Adult Skills Survey. Relatively few have picked up on the wider messages that are based on results from all the 24 participating states. Here, I’ll just focus on those that relate to the benefits of adult learning.

First, the survey provides clear and compelling evidence of the association between adult skills and economic outcomes. This, you might think, is obvious: of course skills help you stay in work and raise your earnings. But rather than relying simply on intuition, it does help to have robust evidence of the consistent effect of adult skills on earnings and on employability. And the survey findings confirm other studies pointing clearly in this direction.

Further, the results add to our understanding of the wider benefits of learning. In all the countries surveyed, people with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and to play no role in associative or volunteer activities. In most of the countries surveyed, they are also less likely to trust others. Anyone who teaches adults will probably snort with derision, as they must have seen these changes with every group they have supported, but once more it is good to have robust evidence.

These effects are not massive, partly because adult learning is so strongly associated with prior education, but they point to a significant and clear independent impact from learning. The challenge for policy makers will be to focus public policy on supporting learning that attracts those who did not benefit the most from school and university earlier in their lvies. Is this best done by targeted initiatives, or by building a broad learning culture?

The survey also provides insights into the relationship between skills and wider inequalities. I will write about those separately. Meanwhile, it is good to see that it confirms other research on the role of adult learning in helping people change their lives.

Does educational research stop at 18 or 21? The debate over Labour policies and Britain’s weak literacy and numeracy

There has been a massive debate in Britain over the results of the OECD’s adult skills survey. Known as the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the survey involves a series of standardised assessments for individuals in 24 countries, backed up by the collection of background data for each participant. Taken as a whole, Britain’s adults came across as reassuringly mediocre in their performance, coming just below average on literacy, numeracy and IT skills among the countries surveyed.

However, as is usual in international surveys, behind the averages were some significant variations. The sub-group which attracted the most attention were young people, whose literacy and numeracy scores came close to the bottom. The Guardian ran the story under the banner: ‘England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills’. Or, as a Daily Mail headline had it, school-leavers are ‘worse at maths and literacy than their grandparents’.

Government ministers promptly seized on this figures to (a) rubbish Labour’s schools policies, and (b) support their own measures. Superficially, this is quite a reasonable claim: anyone who was aged 16-24 when the survey was administered in 2011 would have gone to school during the period 1992-2011, and Labour was in power for 13 of those 19 years. So a critic might suppose the results to reveal fundamental flaws in the education policies that dominated during that period.

Is this the case? I don’t really know, though I suspect that the answer may well be much more complex. But what worries me is that I am not expecting much light to be shed on this problem by my colleagues in the educational research community. For most education researchers, learning seems to stop when school or university ends. If you glance through the last few issues of the British Educational Research Journal or the programme of the British Educational Research Association’s latest conference, you will struggle to find any sign of interest in those who have left full-time education.

There is, of course, an obvious reason for this. Most university research into education is undertaken by people who specialise in training schoolteachers, and it is understandable that they study teachers and schools. Another group is employed in academic staff development, and they tend to study university teaching. So the question of what becomes of people when they leave full-time education is left to sociologists, economists and the occasional specialist in further or adult education.

Mind you, I still expect a few comments on PIAAC from the ‘mainstream’ educational research community. Most of them will lump PIAAC in with PISA as an example of the wider global trend towards ‘governance by data’ – a phenomenon that Alexandra Ioannidou has discussed in a journal article in 2007 and a number of subsequent papers (other scholars’ more recent accounts seem to me to add little to her analysis).

On the whole, I think I prefer governance by data to governance by opinion, anecdote and prejudice of the kind I associate with Michael Gove. And I would therefore welcome a little help from my fellow researchers, particularly those who studied British and other school systems during the period between the mid-90s and 2010, in understanding precisely how young people in England and Northern Ireland fell so badly behind.

Meanwhile, it will be left to hard-pressed practitioners in further and adult education to support these young adult learners as they try to bring their essential skills into line with the economic, cultural and social demands that they are so poorly equipped to face.