Pearson launches The Learning Curve

New global education research from Pearson identifies key lessons for education reform

  • Finland and South Korea top the table of education 'superpowers'
  • New global education data bank drawn from fifty nations offers new insights into the “black box” of educational outcomes

Pearson is today publishing The Learning Curve: a new landmark report designed to help policymakers, school leaders and academics identify the key factors which drive improved educational outcomes.

The global study, carried out independently by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), includes a new Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment, drawing on existing data from the international OECD-PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS assessments*, as well as data on literacy and school and university graduation rates.

  • Finland and South Korea top the new Index
  • Perennial high-performers Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore are close behind
  • Of the forty countries with sufficient data to include, the swiftly emerging economies of Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia are placed lowest on the Index.

The Learning Curve also provides policy lessons and internationally comparable data on education alongside economic and social data from 50 countries in a new publicly accessible, open-source database - the Learning Curve Data Bank -published online at

The Data Bank will enable researchers and policymakers to connect education inputs and outcomes with wider social and economic outcomes more easily than ever before.  The Data Bank includes factors such as:

  • Education inputs: governmental spending on education, school entrance age, teacher salaries and degree of school choice
  • Education outcomes: literacy rates and graduation rates from school and university
  • Economic and social outcomes: national unemployment rates, GDP, life expectancy and prison population

The policy lessons

Finland and South Korea emerge as the clear “education superpowers” from the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment.  In some ways, it is hard to imagine two more different systems: the latter is frequently characterised as test-driven and rigid, with students putting in extraordinary work time; the Finnish system is much more relaxed and flexible. Closer examination, though, shows that both countries develop high-quality teachers, value accountability and have a moral mission that underlies education efforts.

The leading countries in the cognitive skills category, which comprises the international tests (PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS*) in maths, reading and science that students take at Grade 8 and Grade 4, come as no surprise. The top five - Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan - all score significantly higher than the average, more than one standard deviation above the mean.

The educational attainment category, based on literacy and graduation rates, tells a different story. Here, South Korea leads, followed by the UK then Finland, Poland and Ireland.

  • Income matters, but culture may matter more
    The expert analysis in the report suggests that, more important than money, is the level of support for education within the surrounding culture. While there is no doubt that money invested in education reaps rewards, cultural change around education and ambition is equally, if not more, important than income in promoting better educational outcomes.
  • Good teachers are essential and need respect
    There is no substitute for good teachers. The impact of good teachers extends beyond positive educational outcomes and can be linked to positive societal factors, such as lower levels of teenage pregnancy and a greater tendency to save for retirement. Creating the best teachers is about more than paying a good salary. The best performing countries attract top talent, train teachers throughout their careers and allow them freedom too.

John Fallon, Pearson’s chief executive designate, said:

“Education drives success at an individual and national level. But when it comes to improving education, all too often those with the power to change things are working in the dark. Through the Learning Curve, Pearson is trying to illuminate understanding on what really works, and why. 

“We need to open up the black box of education data and understand what really drives learning outcomes, in order to help teachers and policy-makers base their work on evidence.”

Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education advisor, said:

“The Learning Curve will allow far more sophisticated analysis of what works in education. It shows there are no magic bullets. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement. 

“We’re urging all governments to commit to recording and sharing more data, so that globally we can really understand what works, equipping teachers and schools with the tools they need to produce students who successfully shape the economies and societies of the future. And we are making this data open to other researchers and experts, so they too can contribute to the debate."

Denis McCauley, the Economist Intelligence Unit's executive editor, business research, said:

“The Learning Curve breaks new ground in terms of data collection and analysis, but there is so much more to do. We hope our study serves as a catalyst for further collaborative efforts by academics, practitioners and policymakers to deepen our knowledge about what contributes to better education performance and outcomes."


For further information

UK: Sam Cunningham +44 207190 5193

US: Susan Aspey +1 800 745 8489

Other: Brendan O’Grady +44 20 7190 4146

Notes to editors

  1. Further information about the Learning Curve will be available at on Tuesday 27th November.
  2. A note on methodology: The Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment compares the performance of countries on two categories of education: cognitive skills and educational attainment. The Index scores are represented as z-scores. A z-score indicates how many standard deviations an observation is above or below the mean of all the countries in the Index(for more information see The Learning Curve report). Standard deviation simply shows how much variation exists from the average.
  3. A note on international assessments:
    1. OECD-PISA - The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading.
    2. TIMMS - The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an international assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of Grade 4 and Grade 8students around the world. TIMSS was developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to allow participating nations to compare students' educational achievement across borders.
    3. PIRLS - The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is an international study of reading achievement in Grade 4 students. It is conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment

Country Z-Score Rank
FINLAND 1.26 1
JAPAN 0.89 4
CANADA 0.54 10
IRELAND 0.53 11
DENMARK 0.50 12
POLAND 0.43 14
GERMANY 0.41 15
BELGIUM 0.35 16
HUNGARY 0.33 18
SLOVAKIA 0.32 19
RUSSIA 0.26 20
SWEDEN 0.24 21
AUSTRIA 0.15 23
ITALY 0.14 24
FRANCE 0.13 25
NORWAY 0.11 26
PORTUGAL 0.01 27
SPAIN -0.08 28
ISRAEL -0.15 29
BULGARIA -0.23 30
GREECE -0.31 31
ROMANIA -0.60 32
CHILE -0.66 33
TURKEY -1.24 34
ARGENTINA -1.41 35
COLOMBIA -1.46 36
THAILAND -1.46 37
MEXICO -1.60 38
BRAZIL -1.65 39
INDONESIA -2.03 40