What U.S. Schools Can Learn From High-Performing Countries

by Staff Writers

With all the worry about our failing education system and the comparisons to where we stand in relation to other countries in the world, perhaps actually looking at what those countries do in their education systems would be a good idea. That's just what a recent Education Week chat (transcript) did by putting together a small, but authoritative panel of international education experts. The chat, What U.S. Schools Can Learn From High-Performing Countries was hosted by Education Week reporter Sean Cavanagh and included Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Alan Ginsburg, former director of policy and program studies at the U.S. Department of Education. The chat was an open forum with participants posting questions to the mediator who forwarded them on to the experts for their take on how the American education system compares to others around the world. Here are the main points covered in the chat session.

Several questions were submitted regarding the ways in which creative thinking and innovation are supported at schools in other parts of the world. The responses from the panelists focused on Asian schools in particular and Ginsburg's initial answer sums up their assessment best. We (Americans) are better at fostering creativity in our students, but we also need to learn from high-performing schools in other countries about how to:

  • Bring nearly all students up to internationally acceptable levels of performance to reduce outcome inequality tied to social class.
  • Adopt teacher and management reforms to improve educational quality for all students beyond simply tracking test scores.

Americans really are in a position of competitive advantage over many other countries whose education systems do not support innovative thinkers; in fact, they often explicitly work to stifle them. This point needs to be emphasized in addition to bringing students up to the level of overall academic ability demonstrated by students in other countries. Our ability to create innovative thinkers is something unique, or nearly unique, that we need to focus on making a major component of all American education.

Educational/Poverty Gap
One participant asked if eliminating childhood poverty would help us become more competitive globally. Ginsburg's answer to this question was an emphatic "no," stating that, overall our educational standards are very poor. According to him, even our best schools are very far behind in regards to student expectations and amount of time spent in education. According to the panelists, we are the only leading nation in the world whose students attend school for fewer than 220 days/year.

Until we close this attendance gap and raise our standards so that all students, their families, and society as a whole are held more accountable for learning, we will continue to lag far behind in overall academic preparation. The implication here is not that poverty does not matter, but rather that our schools are generally so inadequate that poverty, while a contributing factor, is far from the most important variable that needs to be fixed.

Teacher Education Programs and the Status of Teachers
According to the panelists, there is a lot of comparative data available about teacher education, professional development, and the status of teachers in foreign societies. The panelists were careful not to say that our teacher education programs are bad, but rather that those in many other countries are of very high quality. More importantly, they cited the ways in which foreign education systems support their teachers through professional development and other in-service programs. These ongoing efforts, as much as teacher education, are key factors common to most high performing education systems.

Another factor related to the quality of teachers abroad is the professional organizations that have developed around them and schools. Many of the high performing systems have moved from an industrial model of education toward a professional model where teachers function as high-level knowledge workers who own their professional standards and have significant levels of professional autonomy. Schleicher referenced Finland, Japan, and Canada as particularly good examples of this, stating that, in Finland for example, teachers hold equivalent professional and economic status to doctors and lawyers.

The panelists agreed that none of the highest-performing nations have accountability based systems that link student test performance to teacher pay. The panel moderator, Sean Cavanagh added that many countries take a different approach to testing than the U.S. does. The primary difference being that in the U.S. accountability (penalties, sanctions, rewards) tend to follow schools, districts and possibly teachers in the near future. In contrast, in other countries, high-stakes tests and gateway exams mean that accountability falls on students because their individual performance on these tests often dictates their educational future due to strict tracking and the fact that admissions to universities are limited to the best performers on tests.

Ginsburg added to this discussion the general characterization that Asian assessments were far more likely to use open ended questions that involve multiple steps to answer the questions, while U.S. standardized tests are generally multiple-choice based. The problem with our model, according to Ginsburg, is that under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), state assessments are geared to differentiate and identify the at-risk students and do not focus on measuring higher level knowledge.

Parental Engagement
According to Ginsburg, parental involvement in education is far more important in high achieving countries than in the U.S. For example, Asian tradition stresses the parental role in supporting education and making students accountable for their own learning. Additionally, as Ginsburg stated, teachers in Singapore and Hong Kong are graded on their parental and community out-reach efforts and success. These countries understand the value of parental involvement and engagement and emphasize the role of the family in supporting the student, the teacher, and the school.

U.S. national policy, by contrast, does very little to encourage parents to get involved. This is surprising given the fact that school outreach through technology and access to online learning could contribute substantially to engaging parents with their children's education in ways that would help them succeed.

Class Size
Schleicher presented the interesting fact that student-teacher ratios are often more favorable in the U.S. than they are in many (but not all) high performing systems. There is a different priority in these countries where they prioritize the quality of teaching and teachers over the size of classes. There is a more substantial investment in teacher compensation, professional development, and time to support individual students than to provide smaller class sizes. U.S. schools have trended in the exact opposite direction, favoring smaller classes over more highly-qualified and better-supported teachers.

Schleicher proposed that there is no one solution to closing the achievement gap between the U.S. and other high performing countries. Rather, he concludes that high-performing systems tend to share several important features. First, they place a high value on education, and both the societies and their educators believe that all students can learn core competencies and that all students can succeed. Second, these schools try to attract the best people into the teaching profession and support them well. This support is not only monetary, but also through a work environment that is tailored to their status as knowledge workers. Third, these systems have a balanced approach to accountability, with equal responsibility going to students and parents as to the system and teachers. Finally, they tend invest their resources where they can make the most difference by attracting the most talented teachers to work in the most challenging classrooms, or aligning the best principals with the most difficult schools.

The panelists' ideas for closing the global education gap between American and foreign students speak to the anti-intellectual atmosphere pervading American society as well as the responsibility of society as a whole in supporting education and making it a national priority. These two renowned international education experts provided an excellent session, which not only pointed out the shortcomings of the American education system, but also proposed some real steps that we can take to close the gap between our students and those of the highest-performing nations.


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