The 2012 PISA* report has just been released by the OECD, a think tank of industrialized countries. This tri-annual study evaluates the competencies of youngsters at the end of their compulsory education (aged 15 to 16) in mathematics, reading and sciences. The last survey tested 510 000 students from 65 countries, 31 of which are non OECD members. PISA provides, among other things, a measurement of a country’s education system and makes it possible to compare it in time, with its own past performance, and space, with that of similar countries. It is an essential element in the toolkit of decision makers allowing them to run, in a pragmatic and transparent way, the evolution of the educational system in terms of performance, resources consumption and fairness from both a social or gender perspectives.
While Asia and Latin America made up the bulk of the 31 non OECD members that participated in the 2012 survey, the list included no country from sub-Sahara Africa. In fact, since the launch of the program in 2001, only three African countries – Mauritius, Algeria and Tunisia- have managed to participate at least once to the study.
Given the critical role of education in shaping the performance of an economy, the absence of Africa south of the Sahara is disappointing. It is widely accepted that a performing school system –i.e. which equips students with the key competencies required to operate in today’s world- and an equitable one – i.e. that ensures that only a few students leave school without these basic skills- endows a country with a set of economic and social benefits. At the economic level, such a country will improve its productivity and its attractiveness to foreign direct investors. Then, it will be in a more favorable position to choose the terms under which it will join the global market for production and innovation. Basically, the educational performance of a country makes the link between the level of economic growth and its content. On the social level, a well trained youth will find more and better jobs, resulting in greater social and political stability and reducing the risk of internal armed conflict.
Arguably, the education systems in sub- Saharan Africa can hardly compare with those of developing or emerging countries elsewhere. It also cost money to participate in the survey. While valid, these objections are irrelevant. For one, our countries always manage to find funding for less deserving projects. But, more fundamentally, it does not matter what our entry point in the survey happens to be today. What matters is the trajectory of progress that we chose to take. Since 2001, the PISA survey has established two points: first that, in education, situations may evolve relatively quickly i.e. within a decade. Second that, improvements in the education sector are not primarily determined by the size and resources levels of a country.
In education, as elsewhere, there is no hope of managing an issue without metrics and measurements. The PISA study provides decision makers with more relevant and dynamic data than the tired literacy statistics that still serve today as the main compass of our education policy choices. Fifty years after independence, it is high time we move on to the next stage. The PISA report can strongly contribute to that.
* Program for International Student Assessment.