EDITORIALS

What the world can teach us about education

Mary Ellen Seymour (kneeling next to desk), a special education teacher at Brewer Community School, works with a student on math skills during a class that included fifth- and sixth-graders in January 2012.
Mary Ellen Seymour (kneeling next to desk), a special education teacher at Brewer Community School, works with a student on math skills during a class that included fifth- and sixth-graders in January 2012. Buy Photo
Posted March 19, 2012, at 5:33 p.m.

We’ve all heard the comparisons between U.S. public education and that of other industrialized countries. And we don’t rank well in those comparisons. Too often, policymakers respond with outrage at the poor state of education and immediately begin brainstorming their own solutions, citing notions of American exceptionalism as they implore adoption of their fixes.

Instead, why not examine what those other countries are doing to achieve that success?

Professor Robert Schwartz of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education did just that and spoke about it at last month’s Camden Conference. The approaches used by some of the top performing nations are antithetical to some of our dearly held values and beliefs, but if we are serious about improving educational outcomes, why not consider making changes?

First, the comparisons. According to professor Schwartz, among the 34 nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is 12th in reading literacy. The top five nations are Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. In science, the U.S. ranked 17th; the top five are Finland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Canada. And in mathematics, the U.S. was 25th. Korea, Finland, Switzerland, Japan and Canada were tops.

The U.S. also fares poorly in the rate at which students complete high school. In the 1960s, the U.S. topped the list of nations, but by the 1990s and 2000s, dropped to sixth and then 13th. Korea, meanwhile, went from 27th to first in that span. In four-year college completion, in the span from 1995 to 2005, the U.S. dropped from second to 15th.

But here’s the kicker of comparisons which lights a fire under reformers: the U.S. ranks second in spending per student, trailing Luxembourg and followed by Switzerland, Norway and Austria.

Professor Schwartz notes that a cursory examination of the top-performing countries shows some big differences from the U.S. They don’t leave financing of education to “the vagaries of the local property tax or property wealth,” but instead see education as a state responsibility.

Rather than a bottom-up, grassroots approach to configuring the system, in the top-performing nations “there’s an effort, at the top of the system, to really be clear about goals, and often those get expressed [as] national standards,” he said. Rather than come up with complicated statements of what schools must achieve — think No Child Left Behind — the top performers articulate broad, core concepts at specific grade levels and leave it to local schools to achieve.

With some 15,000 locally elected school boards in the U.S., Mr. Schwartz acknowledges that such a change will be difficult.

Students in those nations are rigorously evaluated to determine that they’ve achieved. Often, that’s a weeklong evaluation which includes written and oral examination — and no multiple choice questions.

“Young people understand that how well they do on those end-of-high-school assessments really have a lot to do with the kinds of opportunities that are now open to them,” he said.

Successful nations have elevated the status of teachers, too. In Finland, there are ten applications for every teacher prep course, which itself is a demanding five-year process heavy on clinical work.

Though Mr. Schwartz told the Camden Conference that he has high regard for Education Secretary Arne Duncan, he believes U.S. priorities are misplaced.

Tying evidence of student learning to teacher evaluation is “not a recipe for progress” in the other countries, he said. Charter schools and other school choice options disrupt, and high-achieving nations instead focus on the system as a whole. Rather than threaten the lowest performing schools, the U.S. should instead do what Canada does, which is lavish attention and support on such schools.

These are hard changes to make, but the proof of their success — albeit in other cultures and other political and economic systems — should not be ignored.

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