Celebrating progress – PISA's success stories

Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong are often lauded for their top three rankings in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

However, there are some countries sitting lower down the leaderboard that have shown great progress and improvement in recent years but rarely grab the headlines.

The PISA tests for 15-year-olds take place every three years and the latest results for 2015 are due for release at the beginning of next month.

Since the first round of tests in 2000, no country has improved more than Peru (76 points in mathematics, 57 in reading and 40 in science), although it starts from a low base sitting 65th out of 65 countries in 2012.

Poland has also seen impressive improvements: 48 points in maths (from 470 to 518), 39 points in reading (479 to 518) and 43 points in science (483 to 526) – ranking 14th, 10th and 9th in these three areas, respectively, in the last round of results. This has taken the eastern European nation from below to above the OECD average, as noted in the Education Policy Outlook: Poland report.

Education in Poland

In Poland, education is compulsory from age seven to 16. The Polish education system includes comprehensive secondary schooling and an above-average proportion of students enrolled in vocational education and training (VET) programmes.

Teachers in Poland have more autonomy over curriculum and assessment than the OECD average, and they experience below-average class sizes, teaching time and salaries. A large survey of teachers found that teachers spend most of their time on teaching, preparing classes and marking and evaluating students. Relatively little time is devoted to contacts with other teachers or talking to parents.

While Poland has The Teachers' Charter, which guarantees special status to the teaching profession, a lower-than-average proportion of educators consider that the ‘teaching profession is valued in society', when compared to other countries participating in the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS).

Reasons for Poland's success

Education reforms in Poland in 1999 are often cited as the reason for its rapid educational improvements in international assessments. In 1999, Poland overhauled its basic education system in order to improve education and increase opportunities for students. The government at the time restructured the system – the existing eight-year primary school followed by early vocational tracking was replaced by six years of primary education and three years of lower general secondary education.

It was decided that ‘only after nine years of schooling would a decision be taken about what type of upper secondary education, academic or vocational, – would follow' (Jakubowski, Patrinos, Porta & Wiśniewski, 2010).

This postponed the decision between general or vocational education at a secondary level by a year. Curriculum reform was also prioritised, with a core curricular developed with the goal of providing schools with greater autonomy and responsibility.

The OECD Directorate for Education has produced working papers in an attempt to explain Poland's success. They found that, on average, the educational reforms in 1999 were ‘associated with significant improvements'.

‘Reformers had two main arguments for the changes. First, dividing education into stages would allow teaching methods and curricula to better meet the specific needs of pupils of various ages,' the paper reads.

‘Second, a structural reform would have to be linked with a curricular reform, otherwise those teachers who resisted the reform may continue to teach their pupils in the same ways as they had for many years. So teachers were encouraged to change what they taught and how they taught it.'

A possible suggestion is also thrown up: ‘Rigorous academic testing was not the norm prior to the 1999 reforms. Soon after the reforms, tests became more important and regular. This exposure to assessments may have prepared students, thus making them better test takers'.

In addition, Poland's success has been attributed to increased hours of instruction, particularly in the area of reading. ‘There was a large increase in the proportion of students that received more than four hours of reading instruction, from 1 per cent in 2000 to 76 per cent in 2006,' the OECD report notes.

It adds that Poland has also improved the information infrastructure of its school systems so that teachers can better identify and support struggling students.


Portugal's performance in PISA 2012 was around the OECD average in mathematics and below average in reading and science. Over the preceding 12 years however, Portugal recorded major improvements in all three areas.

Portugal has above OECD average enrolment rates for three- to four-year-olds, universal education for five- to 14-year-olds and compulsory education for six- to 18-year-olds, one of the longest periods of compulsory schooling among OECD countries.

Interestingly, in PISA 2012, about 34 per cent of 15-year-olds in Portugal had repeated at least one grade, compared to the OECD average of 12 per cent.

Positive learning environments are seen as being instrumental in Portugal's success.

According to the Education Policy Outlook: Portugal study, students report having ‘better relations with their teachers than the OECD average and view their classrooms as conducive to learning at the OECD average'.

Meanwhile, ‘teachers report less positive classroom disciplinary climate, with the second lowest score among TALIS countries'.

Another notable success: Vietnam

When Vietnam first participated in PISA in 2012, it scored higher than the OECD average and outperformed many developed countries.

Education in Vietnam has benefited from early investment in both school and teacher quality. According to The Learning Generation report released earlier this year, not only did Vietnam enforce minimum quality standards for schools, it also set standards around content knowledge, skills and behaviour. The report notes that despite their relatively low pay, teachers in Vietnam display a strong professional ethos, perhaps due to the fact that their performance is more likely to be monitored, with higher emphasis on student achievement and on making information about that achievement public.

Interestingly, Vietnam was also an early adopter of standardised assessments of literacy and numeracy. High levels of political commitment to education has led to both public and private investment. Education financing grew from 7 per cent of the national budget in 1986 to 20 per cent in 2008.

The report says that Vietnamese parents also play an important role in school life. Their research shows that they are more likely to be more involved in the school life of their children than parents of students in other developing countries. They are also more likely to volunteer, take part in school, and help teachers as classroom assistants.

As a result of all these factors, Vietnam has begun to recognise that rote learning is not enough and is instead focused on developing a student-centred curriculum to foster critical thinking.


European Commission,. (2016). Education and Training Monitor: Poland (pp. 1-14). European Commission. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/education/sites/education/files/monitor2016-pl_en.pdf

Jakubowski, M., Patrinos, H., Porta, E., & Wiśniewski, J. (2010). The Impact of the 1999 Education Reform in Poland (pp. 1-32). The World Bank. Retrieved from http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/153761468095960833/pdf/WPS5263.pdf

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),. (2014). Education Policy Outlook: Portugal (pp. 1-26). Secretary-General of the OECD. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/edu/EDUCATION%20POLICY%20OUTLOOK_PORTUGAL_EN.pdf

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),. (2015). Education Policy Outlook: Poland (pp. 1-26). Secretary-General of the OECD. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/edu/POL-country-profile.pdf

Patrinos, H. (2013). PISA Results: Which Countries Improved Most?. Education for Global Development. Retrieved from http://blogs.worldbank.org/education/pisa-results-which-countries-improved-most

The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity,. (2016). The Learning Generation: Investing in education for a changing world (p. 45). The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. Retrieved from http://www.adeanet.org/en/system/files/Learning_Generation_Full_Report.pdf

The 2015 PISA results will be published in early December. Stay tuned for our coverage.