Looking Abroad For Answers

Eight school system leaders on something that caught their eye during their overseas education missions by Marian Kisch

Interacting with school leaders FROM different countries and cultural backgrounds. Conversing with educators abroad about effective leadership and managerial practices. Discovering firsthand what’s driving schools and classrooms in foreign places.


This is what traveling overseas on an education study mission can entail for a school system leader. Reading comparative reports about what’s taking place in schools overseas can be informative, but there’s nothing like being there to learn firsthand.

South AfricaStudents at South Africa's Meetse A Bophelo Primary School greeted Kendra Hearn during her study trip as a Fulbright-Hays scholar.

American education leaders can glean useful ideas from their visits with educators abroad as part of formal programs run by U.S.
government agencies, foundations and interest groups promoting cultural exchange. These study tours allow participants to find new and better ways to strengthen their curricula and practices back home. And as some educators discover, it helps them better appreciate our own public schools, their values and missions.

The opportunities are numerous and varied (see related story, page 18). AASA has co-hosted study missions (with the University of Texas Cooperative Superintendency Program) for members in the recent past to such locations as Argentina, Croatia, Ireland, Norway, Peru and Romania.

The School Administrator asked eight current and former central-office administrators who have participated in an overseas education trip to single out one lasting impression of what they observed. Their brief reports follow.

South Africa: An Oasis of Schooling in Africa


During my six-week journey to South Africa as a summer 2008 Fulbright-Hays Scholar, I was privy to visit people and places that never would have been possible as a casual tourist. Along with a few safari game drives and close encounters with lion prides and hippopotamuses, I gained incredible professional insights and appreciation for all that we have in the United States through the eyes of the educators and learners of South Africa. While visiting Meetse A Bophelo Primary School, one of South Africa’s poor township schools in Mamelodi East, I saw the passion of a community to bring the best of its meager resources to its children. The elementary school of 2,000 students in kindergarten through 5th grade had been adopted by the University of Pretoria-Mamelodi.

HearnKendra Hearn with a pupil at the Harmony Primary School in Pretoria, South Africa.

The occasion of our visit enabled university personnel to show us the library they helped build on the school’s campus. The library — not much bigger than a typical American classroom — was the pride of the community and said to be the highlight of many of the children’s day when they visited. Though some of the library's shelves were bare and its three computers were not Internet-connected, the library’s coordinator said it was such a bright spot for the children because so many of them "just want to learn how to read."

The oasis this school represents became further apparent as we observed some of the children line up for a lunchtime meal. Two women prepared a modest breakfast and lunch of grain for the children on a small four-burner stove. For most of the children, these are the only meals they will eat as many are heads-of-household having lost both parents to the HIV-AIDS epidemic ravishing the nation. Staff at the school and the university toured us around the campus, with clusters of shanty homes in the backdrop, to show us the garden they started so they can incorporate fresh vegetables into their modest meal program.

When you consider most township schools in South Africa do not have a library or a meal program, the power of the community’s investment of resources in schools and children is plainly apparent. Truly, many students seemed drawn to this school to learn and for mere survival. The hope shone through their eyes as they jockeyed for position in front of my camera demanding, "Madame, shoot me, shoot me," and then swiftly raced to my side to see their image in my LCD display. For many, it was the first image they had seen of themselves. For me, it was a reminder of gratitude for the abundance that we enjoy in the United States, including an abounding free and reduced-price lunch program for every child in need.

Kendra Hearn is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in West Bloomfield School District in West Bloomfield, Mich. E-mail: hearn@westbloomfield.k12.mi.us

Japan: Simple But Potent Parenting


As I was departing last fall to participate in a three-week Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Program for teachers and school administrators, I couldn’t help but wonder why Japanese students significantly and consistently outperform ours on the Programme for International Student Assessment, an exam administered most recently to students in 57 countries.


During Japanese school visits, I found average class sizes in the mid-40s, school facilities in need of considerable repair and the amount of available instructional time not much more than in my own rural school district in Hadley, Mass. What then was the secret of their success?

YoungNick Young with Japanese pupils on recess at Sonya Onoda Elementary School displaying the peace sign to bridge the language barrier.


While I will probably never have a full answer, I did come across a promising program in the city of Sonya- Onoda in the Yamaguchi prefecture of Japan — the Living Habit and Academic Ability Improving Project.

This Japanese school district makes it a point to tell parents they must shoulder half of the responsibility for student achievement. Through open forums and written communications, parents are given three homework assignments from the moment their child enters school: (1) make sure he or she is in bed each night between 8 and 9 p.m. and wakes up early; (2) make sure he or she eats three nutritious meals a day; and (3) make sure he or she watches no more than one hour of TV daily.

Since adopting the Living Habit and Academic Ability Improving Project in 2003, the students in Sonya-Onoda City have made marked improvements in mathematics and Japanese language acquisition of nearly one and a half grade levels per year on average on a locally designed achievement test, leading Japanese officials to conclude the living habits of students have as much to do with student achievement as what goes on in the classroom.

As I reflect back on this trip, I cannot help but see the simplicity and wisdom in how Japanese educators approached ongoing school improvement: Give parents the responsibility to prepare their child to learn.

Nicholas Young is the superintendent of the Hadley Public Schools in Hadley, Mass. E-mail: Nyoung1191@aol.com

Brazil: Creating a Family Feeling

Imagine neatly aligned rows of elementary students and teachers, all dressed in white smocks, standing at attention and singing their country’s national anthem, in a century-old school courtyard. This is the morning welcome ceremony in many of the elementary schools I visited on my trip to Brazil as part of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange in August 2007.

I was impressed with the feeling of family in the schools that I visited. The gathering of the entire student body to sing, listen to announcements and share a short prayer asking God to watch over them made everyone feel as if they were part of an extended family as they began their school day. The feeling was carried over as the children received the traditional hug and cheek kiss from the teacher when they entered their classroom.

EganJames Egan greets a pupil in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

This all seemed such a warm and friendly way to start the school day. Upon my return to my own school district, I felt this feeling was definitely missing and much needed. Teachers and students seemed too anxious to move into the comfort of their own rooms with little connection with other staff or students.

In spite of cultural restrictions, I thought our staff and students would benefit from starting their day together in our gymnasium. Beginning with the first day of the new school year, all staff and students came to the gym at the first bell. There we listened to announcements, said the Pledge of Allegiance and gave each other a handshake and wished each a good day.

I still receive favorable comments from staff, students and even parents as to how much everyone enjoys the way we start our day. We continue to do the morning ceremony, and I feel it has made a positive contribution to help us bond as a family.

James Egan is district administrator in Southwestern Wisconsin School District in Hazel Green, Wis. E-mail: jegan@mhtc.net

Argentina: A Fast Pace in the Pampas


When the bell rang at No. Escuela 4-129, the Argentinian high school I was visiting one afternoon, I quickly stepped aside to avoid the crush of teens I knew would explode into the hallway. But instead of students, teachers filled the corridors as they changed classrooms or left the school altogether.


These are referred to as "taxi teachers" — educators who travel from school to school. Facing limited resources, a teacher shortage and stringent certification requirements, many school districts in Argentina have adopted this solution to make required and desired classes available to all students. And while this practice has brought tremendous educational benefits, it also comes with challenges. As my high school principal hostess explained, not only is it difficult for taxi teachers to collaborate with colleagues, she has found working with a staff she rarely sees to be frustrating.


DerringtonMary Derrington with the principal of a rural school in Argentina showing off a sundial.

The use of taxi teachers was but one of many differences I observed during my three-week trip to Argentina as a participant in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program in July 2006. Other unusual practices occurred outside the classroom, such as teachers being served tea in the faculty lounge at recess or the principal who retrieved a bottle of wine from a file drawer to go with our after-school lunch in the faculty room.

While I found these experiences interesting, novelty is not why I participated in the Fulbright reciprocal exchange. Our increasingly interdependent economic, environmental and political world has changed the education landscape, bringing with it high-stakes implications. As an educator, I feel a responsibility to prepare our future citizens to help the United States find its place in the global picture. Students deserve leaders who possess an interest in and knowledge of the rest of the world, complemented by behaviors that embrace participation in finding a new direction.

A different culture is a powerful teacher. I always have looked to travel to broaden my perspective, to not only make history come to life but to make me think about our educational legacy. As a superintendent in western Washington at the time, I returned home from Argentina inspired — and eager to review my own experiences and to consider how I might apply some creative adaptations I’d observed to improve educational programs in my school district.

Mary Lynne Derrington is assistant professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. E-mail: marylynne.derrington@wwu.edu

England: Full of the Unexpected


If asked whether American students or English students are better behaved, have stronger relationships with their teacher and are more tidy, most people would rush to say the English have the upper hand.


Not so, according to Richard Lord, my partner in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program from Peterborough, England. During his visit in January and February of 2006, Richard surprised us when asked what English schools could learn from the Michigan schools he visited in rural, suburban, urban and intermediate districts.

msimeckMike Simeck with a student back home at Berkley High School.

"Tidiness," he answered. "American schools are far more orderly and tidy than ours." He added, "Your teachers and students really like each other and it shows. I've never seen anything like it."

For my part, perhaps the most striking and recurring pattern I observed while in England four months later was systemic in nature. England’s schools offer a glimpse of Michigan school districts' collective future. English schools conduct national, standardized tests at many grade levels annually, and these tests drive a remarkable amount of decision making for individual students, teachers and buildings. The tests measure "value added" from one year to the next and, while many teachers loathe them, they grudgingly acknowledge the testing has improved teaching and learning. Even employers ask students for the results of the tests — and make hiring decisions based on them.

Paradoxically, the English say the idea came from America; they’re just implementing it. Compared to Michigan schools, England is remarkably centralized in testing and the use of the test results. More broadly, they also are highly centralized in curricula, textbooks and human resources. These are directions in which Michigan has been heading for some time.

After having been there for a period of time, I now see more clearly the repeated and steady consolidation of authority at the state (not to mention the federal) level.

Mike Simeck is superintendent of the Berkley School District in Oakland County, Mich. E-mail: msimeck@berkley.k12.mi.us

Thailand: Enduring Foreign Relations


The school day at Bangkok’s Satriwithaya 2 School had just ended, and I was crossing a plaza on the school’s campus with my Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program partner, Cherdchai, the director of this 6,000-student, grade 7-12 school. As a high school student spied us coming in his direction, he hurriedly tucked his white uniform shirt back into his blue shorts; Cherdchai nodded and smiled. Not unlike students back home, I thought, who remove their caps and hoodies in school when the principal approaches.

MaskoMichael Masko greets a young elephant, the national symbol of Thailand, in Chiang Mai.

During my six-week visit to Thailand in fall 2003, I was struck time and again by the similarities between Thai and U.S. students, teachers, schools and families, despite very different histories, cultures, languages, food and traditions.

The primary purpose of my visit was to learn about Asian approaches to the design of K-12 science instruction. Cherdchai assisted by arranging visits to science programs at several schools and extended interviews with the national directors of science education in Thailand and Vietnam. Cherdchai also introduced me to the Thai minister of education, who included me in a three-day tour of schools in a rural province.

As a Fulbright scholar in Germany 30 years earlier and a teacher of world languages for 14 years before moving into administration, I looked forward to the challenge of learning the basics of the Thai language, but I was quickly confounded by the unfamiliar consonants and vowel tones and found I was dependent on Thais who understood English for the most basic of daily needs — a humbling lesson in empathy for the many immigrant parents and children in the United States and the insecurity and confusion they must feel when they arrive on our school steps.

One week after my return home, Cherdchai arrived at my home with two Thai principal colleagues for the second phase of the exchange. Their first experiences of fall foliage, Halloween and a high school football game were memorable moments. So too were the first encounters of many of the students in my district with Asian visitors. As differences in culture, customs, language and religion were discussed, both students and adults developed an enduring awareness that we are all similar inside. More than a year later, several 5th graders still greeted me Thai style, with hands together uttering “Sawatt dee ka!” (hello).

During the five years following our exchange, Cherdchai and I arranged visits of more than 60 Thai teachers and administrators to my school district and neighboring schools in Bucks County, Pa. During the past year, Cherdchai retired and I left the superintendency, but our friendship endures and we know we are always welcome in each other’s home. The words spoken by the U.S. Ambassador to Germany to me and fellow Fulbright scholars in Berlin in 1974 still ring in my ears: “Through your everyday interactions as Americans abroad, you can create more international understanding and goodwill than any diplomat.”

Michael Masko is the assistant executive director of the Bucks County Schools Intermediate Unit in Doylestown, Pa. E-mail: mmasko@bucksiu.org

Estonia: Pulsing Parallels Home and Abroad


During my Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program in Estonia in the fall 2006, my administrative partner introduced me to her teaching staff at the K-12 Gustov Adolfi Gümnaasium in the capital city of Tallinn, a city of about 400,000 people. Gustov is an English language school in continuous operation since 1631. The language curricula at Gustov are endorsed by diplomas and are highly sought after by the school’s students hoping to gain entrance into a university.

SaaranenPaul Saaranen visited Kuressaare on Estonia's largest island, Saaremaa.

The staff break room/workroom was fitted with flat-screen PCs, which the staff use to enter their students’ grades and attendance data into the new district/statewide data system. Ironically, my home school district had just installed the first version of a districtwide student database so I felt right at home when the staff at Gustov shared the same concerns as my staff about the promises of streamlined grading, attendance and data distribution and the challenge of learning new systems.

I hypothesized that a former Soviet-controlled country’s educational system would differ greatly from Michigan’s education paradigm. For every American education component, I found a comparable Estonian process. I was impressed with the reforms taking place in Estonian schools pulsing at the same frequency as Michigan’s sweeping reforms of the past decade, though both economies have difficulties fully supporting education.

The Estonians had implemented a statewide student data system to support school operations, something the state of Michigan might consider. The small district I represent spent $8,500 the first year to implement a commercially produced data system that meets the demands of school improvement legislation and district needs. Michigan could potentially save considerable money by investing in one system as opposed to supporting individual systems all over the state.

Paul Saaranen is superintendent/principal in Stanton -Township School District in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. E-mail: psaaranen@stanton.k12.mi.us

Japan: School Lunch, Japanese Style!


Mmmm! Welcome to school lunch at Sakanoue Elementary School in Nagaoka, Japan: kuri-gohan (rice with chestnuts), kenchinjiru (soy sauce soup with stir-fry vegetables), saba no shioyaki (broiled mackerel with salt), isokaae (vegetables), kudamana-nashi (Japanese pear) and gyunyu (milk).


And, of course, chopsticks.


GervaseMary Gervase (right) with her host family as a Fulbright visitor to Japan.

I had the great privilege of spending three weeks immersed in Japanese education and culture in October 2005 as part of the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund program. While Japanese school lunch cuisine was strange compared to American tastes, stranger still was that the serving of food and school cleanup were done completely by students at all grade levels.

A full hot lunch is provided to all students in the public elementary and middle schools in Japan. It’s heavily subsidized by the government, and parents pay a monthly lunch fee. The national School Lunch Law of 1954 resulted in the nationwide establishment of a school lunch system. The law’s intent was three-fold — to improve nutritional adequacy, to promote student/teacher relationships and cooperation by participation in lunch service and cleanup, and to educate students in nutrition. School lunch standards are based on providing over one-third of a student’s daily nutrition requirements.

School lunch, or kyushoku, is served in the classroom, the practice since the 1890s. Even with the addition of state-of-the-art kitchen facilities, this tradition of eating in the classrooms is still common practice today.

Schools are typically staffed with a school dietician. Dieticians not only oversee the preparation of kyushoku, but they also educate during lunch by visiting classrooms because they think of school lunch as live teaching materials. Additionally, the dieticians go to such classes as domestic science, physical training and lessons for daily living to reinforce good diet and nutrition. They also speak at PTA meetings.

As the eating habits of Japanese youth change, schools and their dieticians will be negotiating new territory — childhood obesity, inactivity, diabetes and other health problems. Young people are passing up the traditional miso soup, rice and fish in favor of hamburgers, french fries and fried chicken.

After lunch, students are expected to brush their teeth and clean up!

Mary Gervase, a retired assistant superintendent in Hailey, Idaho, is the education director for the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games. E-mail: marymgervase@yahoo.com