What Can U.S. Schools Learn from Foreign Counterparts?

Judy Hartnett's picture
Thursday, February 2, 2012

If the results of the most recent international achievement tests were graded on a curve, U.S. students probably would rank somewhere in the B range. They placed 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in mathematics among 70 countries whose 15-year-olds participated in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing, the latest figures available.

How could U.S. students make it to the top tier and thus maximize their chances of competing in a global economy? It would require that radical reforms in curriculum, testing and funding be instituted at the national level, says the nonprofit National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), which has investigated the educational systems of high-ranking countries like Canada, China, Finland, Japan and Singapore to distill best practices.

The NCEE’s report, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform,” and the book Surpassing Shanghai, from which the report is adapted, include recommendations for both students and schools. Students should be required to study content in depth and show they can think critically about it through standardized but essay-heavy tests before finishing their education. School systems should spend more money on training and paying high-quality teachers, and less on state-of-the-art facilities, new textbooks and central office administrations.

Marc Tucker, president of NCEE and author of Surpassing Shanghai, says U.S. educators typically have not been receptive to adopting best practices from foreign nations, but he believes their resistance is thawing.“We’ve encountered a view of real suspicion, and often outright rejection, because Americans of many stripes, both left and right, viewed the experience of other countries as irrelevant for a long list of reasons,” he says. “People would say, ‘Those countries are all homogeneous; we’re very heterogeneous. Those countries educate some people, and we educate everybody.’ The evidence that other countries were outperforming us was rejected out of hand because American educators felt they were unfair comparisons.”

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