Feature                                                       Pages 23-26


Benchmarking the World’s


Lessons local school leaders in this country can draw from global pacesetting education systems


A century ago, the United States was a world leader in industrial benchmarking. We found the world’s best chemical firms in Germany, the steel leaders in England, the most admired vocational education systems in Scotland and the leading research universities in Germany. We carefully studied their accomplishments and used what we had learned to eventually leapfrog ahead of them in every one of those fields.

However, after World War II, once no one could compete with us, we became complacent. Today many industrialized countries have higher student achievement and more equitable and efficient education systems. A higher proportion of young people in their workforces have the equivalent of high school diplomas and four-year college degrees. Furthermore, it has cost them less per student to climb to the top than it has cost the United States to fall to mediocrity. They have now managed to leapfrog over us.

Marc Tucker
Marc Tucker  

My organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy, has been researching the countries with the strongest records in education for the last 23 years. Our aim has been to identify the common principles underlying their successful strategies.

My five recommendations below are based on these principles. Keep in mind that most of the countries we studied are the size of American states, not the United States. These recommendations are intended for the states, not the national government. They also suggest some lessons for local school leaders.

No. 1: Start benchmarking and never stop.To begin with, all of the top performers are very conscious of what the other top performers are doing and routinely looks abroad to find ideas that can be adapted for their own unique circumstances. Japan started doing this at the end of the 19th century, when it radically reformed its entire education system based on what it learned about Western nations’ education policies and practices. An entire section of Japan’s ministry of education does nothing but conduct research on the education systems in the world’s leading industrial nations. China and Singapore routinely send delegations of school people overseas to identify leading practices and bring them home.

Here in the United States, Jerry Weast, former superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., often talks about how his district researched the practices of the world’s leading education systems to build a strategy for reform in his county, a pacesetting school district.

You can learn a lot by paying attention to the research others have done (compiled by the Center on International Education Benchmarking and accessible at www.ncee.org/cieb), but there is nothing like having your own staff see with their own eyes what others are doing and talking with the key stakeholders.

If you do send your staff overseas to look at other countries’ education systems, make sure they have clear goals and a plan for achieving them.

Many think a quick “edutourist” visit will do. That is not how our competitors do it. They carefully compare broad goals, policies, practices and institutional structures, as well as relative standing on common measures. They are intent on knowing what competitors are doing and understanding why. They are focused on the strategies used to promote widespread acquisition of complex skills, creativity and innovative capacity.

They look at standards, curricula, instruction, assessment systems, school organization and school finance. They examine how teachers are recruited, trained, compensated and supported, as well as how competitors are addressing low-performing schools, ensuring all schools get good teachers, demanding high standards regardless of students’ socioeconomic status, and so on.

They never stop because they understand that no country’s education system stands still for very long.

No. 2: Develop and implement strong, coherent and aligned instructional systems. Virtually all high-performing countries have powerful instructional systems in place. They specify a strong core curriculum for their compulsory schools, and they base it on internationally benchmarked standards. They usually write a sound syllabus for each course at the high school level and develop high quality examinations based on those syllabi, and they train their teachers to teach these courses well to students from very different backgrounds. Curriculum frameworks specify what topics should be taught at each grade level in each major subject.

These countries’ national curricula go far beyond mathematics and the home language to cover science, social studies, the arts and music and, in some cases, religion, morals or philosophy. The examinations are designed to test complex thinking skills. Other countries would be baffled by our use of computer-scored exams, skeptical that computers can test higher-level skills.

Few of the top-performing countries use tracking or ability grouping during compulsory education. They expect all students to achieve stand-ards that most of these countries only expected their elite students to achieve until recently. That, in turn, means they must have systems in place to help their teachers know almost instantly when a student begins to fall behind, to enable teachers to identify the problem and the instructional techniques or resources needed to get the student back on track.

In the United States, we have made progress in this direction with the Common Core State Standards, but if you are charting our progress like a marathon, we have barely made it to the first mile marker.

No. 3: Do everything possible to recruit your teachers from the top third of high school graduates and provide a working environment likely to retain them. The contrast between the approach to teacher quality here in the United States and the strategies used by the countries leading the world in student achievement is truly stunning. The standards for getting into our teacher education programs are embarrassingly low. Few if any applicants are turned away. Teachers’ colleges are known for presenting an undemanding curriculum. Licensure standards are similarly low.

“Alternative routes” into teaching make it possible for people who have studied the craft of teaching for only a few weeks to get a license to teach. It is not at all uncommon for elementary school teachers who never have taken a college-level course in mathematics or science to teach those subjects to their students. Still, we routinely waive these unacceptable “standards” in the face of recurrent teacher shortages.

In Finland, accepted applicants in teacher colleges must first survive a two-stage review. The first stage, a document review, requires applicants to score very high on the national college entrance exams, have a high GPA in high school and have a strong record of out-of-school accomplishments.

During the second stage, applicants must complete a written exam on assigned books in pedagogy, participate in role-play to prove their social interaction and communication skills, and participate in interviews in which they are asked, among other things, why they have decided to become a teacher.

Only after applicants have successfully passed all of these screens are they admitted to a teacher education program. Only one out of every 10 applicants is accepted.

In most of the top-performing countries, beginning teachers are paid on par with beginning engineers. Career ladders are available, so the best teachers are offered teaching jobs of increasing responsibility and authority but can nevertheless continue to teach. They lead curriculum development, mentor new teachers, coach experienced teachers, work one on one with students who need specialized help and lead school research efforts designed to improve the school’s performance. Teachers who reach the top of these career ladders often make as much or more than the principal.

American teachers have more student contact hours than teachers in almost every other industrialized nation. Other countries with the same student/teacher ratios overall have larger class sizes, which makes it possible for teachers to spend more time working with one another to plan lessons, observe each other’s teaching, develop materials and gain new skills. These are things that could only be accomplished by teachers working together in teams, taking advantage of each other’s particular competencies to address the challenges faced by the school as a whole.

U.S. school administrators often feel helpless in improving the quality of teacher candidates and graduates. Large school districts have enormous market power in the American system and, if they chose to do so, could dramatically affect teacher colleges’ programs by making clear what kind of teachers they want and shopping around for schools of education that produce teachers who have the qualities they want.

Even in the current environment, districts could raise the compensation of beginning teachers who come with the qualities they most want. If larger districts did that, they might produce a powerful incentive for teachers colleges to produce teachers with those qualities. Smaller districts could band together to do the same thing.

School districts interested in going down such a road might want to begin by creating career ladders, basing them perhaps on the Singapore design, culminating in the position of master teacher. They might want to do what an increasing number of other countries are doing, by releasing their master teachers from their teaching load every few years to take on a small number of first-year teachers, doing demonstration classes for them and critiquing their performance as teachers, giving them, in effect, the kind of apprenticeship to the trade that will make them fine teachers when they take on a full class load.

Attracting capable young people to teaching is one challenge. Keeping them in the field is another. In the United States, half the graduates from our schools of education who begin a career in teaching are gone in less than five years. In the top-performing countries, the half-life of a cohort in the system is 10 to 15 years, twice to 2½ times what it is in the United States. Interestingly, that is also true for the high-status professions in the United States.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his influential book Outliers, explains it takes about 10,000 hours in a wide range of occupations to become an expert. What this means is we manage to lose a large share of our teachers just as they are on the verge of getting enough experience to do a really good job. But, to change that, we would have to make teaching attractive to people who could be surgeons or Google engineers. That means we will have to trust them to know what their students need and to do the right thing by their students. We will have to give them the same kind of professional autonomy that people in high-status professions have, and we will have to give up on the heavy-handed accountability systems we are busily putting in place, systems with no counterpart in the top-performing countries.

No. 4: Put more money behind the students who are harder to get to high standards. To a degree unmatched by other industrialized countries, the amount of money our schools receive is a function of the value of the homes in the community. Local control of school finance allows wealthy parents to form their own taxing districts, and as a result, they enjoy low tax rates and high tax yields.

On the other side of the fence, those who cannot afford much for housing end up paying high tax rates to get low tax yields. Canada used to have a similar system. But about two decades ago, the conservative governments, in response to complaints about skyrocketing local tax rates, changed the system so the funds are raised at the provincial level, rather than the local level, and the result is that the funds are now distributed on a much more equitable basis.

We say we want to get all students to the same high standards, but our words amount to little more than a slogan. If we really wanted to follow through on this, then we would put more money behind the hardest-to-educate children and send our best teachers to those furthest behind, which is exactly what Singapore and many other top performers do.

No. 5: Ensure you have an effective system, not just a collection of parts and pieces. Lastly, and in some ways most importantly, the various pieces of the policies and practices in the top-performing countries were developed to work smoothly together. Their ministries of education are deeply committed to the effectiveness and efficiency of the system as a whole.

In the United States, we keep adding more programs, more initiatives, more laws, more regulations, all piled on what went before. There is no system.

No matter how good any individual policy or program is, it will not improve student perform-ance much if its effects are cancelled out by the effects of other policies and practices that do not support it. What we lack are systems of policies and practices that are designed to support one another.

School districts do not control state policies or federal government policies, but, working with state officials and with their supplier teacher-training institutions, school districts could begin to play an important role in building a more effective system. School districts can take the lead in putting together powerful instructional systems and processes for developing and keeping high-quality teachers. It is hard work and takes a long time. But there is no substitute for such systems, so it is never too early and never too late to start.

Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C. He is the editor of Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems. E-mail: mtucker@ncee.org 


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