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How America Can Improve—And Compete—With High-Achieving Countries

The National Center on Education and Economy released a report that outlines key aspects of other educational systems worldwide that are outperforming the U.S.

Buzz surrounding the results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) program, released late last year, has yet to cease. The report proved that achievement gains of American students were stagnant when compared to students of various foreign countries.

In response, the National Center on Education and Economy (NCEE), a nonprofit organization that studies the international economy and its implications on American education, released a report that outlines key aspects of other educational systems throughout the world that are outperforming the U.S. PISA, which is administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is an internationally standardized assessment that was jointly developed by participating economies and administered to 15-year-olds in schools.

"The most important take away from the report is that the strategies the most successful countries are using with only a few exceptions are not being used in the U.S.," says Marc Tucker, president and CEO of NCEE and author of the NCEE report, "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform."

The paper is adapted from the last two chapters of a book to be published in September by Harvard Education Press. The report, which was released in May, points to different educational practices of high-achieving countries such as Japan, Canada, Singapore and Finland.

In the report, Tucker makes clear that the American system was designed in part on the nation's mass production model. And tolerating a high rate of waste—discarding youths—is part of the price paid by the education system. "The American mass production system was primarily concerned with driving cost down as low as possible," the report states. "Quality was secondary. American production lines would produce a lot of parts and finished products that needed to be thrown out or remanufactured. But, in the latter half of the 20th century, the Japanese, borrowing American ideas that did not get a hearing in the United States, started to reengineer their manufacturing systems to assure that quality was built in at every stage of the process, with the result that the finished product met very high quality criteria with very little wastage produced along the way. They actually showed that it is less expensive to build quality in at the beginning than to compensate for the lack of quality at the end of the production line."

Aligning the National Curriculum

The report throws out various suggestions the U.S. system can adopt. One is aligning the national curriculum so students are ready to take gateway exams for higher education. Most high-performing countries have a system of gateways marking the key transition points from basic education to upper secondary education, from upper secondary education to university, from basic education to job training and from job training into the workforce. "At each of these major gateways, there is some form of external national assessment," the report states.

And these gateway exams make sure every student takes tough courses and works hard in school. "Because the exams are scored externally, the student knows that the only way to move on is to meet the standard," the report states. "Because they are national or provincial standards, the exams cannot be gamed. Because the exams are very high quality, they cannot be 'test prepped'; the only way to succeed on them is to actually master the material."

Although the U.S. is well underway with adopting the Common Core State Standards, the report points out that Finland's national curriculum teaches beyond mathematics and language arts. It includes social sciences, sciences, arts and music, religion, morals and philosophy. In most high-performing countries, few of the secondary school exams are scored by computers, and the exams require students to work out complex problems or write short essays. "They do this because the ministries in these countries have grave doubts about the ability of computers to properly assess the qualities they think most important in the education of their students," the paper states.

To emphasize this suggestion, Tucker's report focused on the clarity of the educational goals that other OECD countries present. "All now realize that high wages in the current global economy require not just superior knowledge of the subjects studied in school and the ability to apply that knowledge to problems of a sort they have not seen before (the sorts of things that PISA measures), but also a set of social skills, personal habits and dispositions and values that are essential to success," the report states.

Raising Teacher Standards

Tucker adds that the United States educational system should focus on raising teaching standards. To enter into teacher training programs, the standards should be higher—-as they are in Japan or Finland—-and teachers should master the subject they teach. "In Singapore, young people for a long time have taken 'A Level' exams to get into teachers college," the paper states. "These are very difficult end-of-course examinations built on the English model. Low scores on these exams used to be sufficient for aspiring teachers, but, in recent years, that is no longer true and scores in the middle of the range are now required."

The financial hardship of pursuing teacher education is another factor in having high quality teachers. In Shanghai, for example, it waives charges for teacher education tuition and offers early admissions to students applying to teacher education programs. "This has made teaching a very attractive career choice, especially for students from the poorer provinces with strong academic backgrounds," the report states. And even more intriguing is that Finland sets up a system so that prospective teachers are learning about subject-specific pedagogy and provides their teachers with strong research skills.

Teachers in training learn how to choose the right solution for student learning problems, based on relevant research. "The Finns place most of their faith in developing the pedagogical skills of their future teachers while they are still in pre-service training," the paper states. "Obviously, the Finns believe it is very important for prospective teachers to get a strong background in pedagogy before entering the teaching force."

Teachers would also be treated more like professionals if the U.S. implements the report's suggestion to change the overall management structure in school districts. For example, school systems would move away from a system where workers were held accountable at each level by their supervisors and, instead, would establish a workplace where workers would feel accountability to their colleagues. Finland and Ontario are examples of exercising less control and more support to progressively bring about more success with the teachers.

According to the late Peter Drucker, who was one of the best-known and most widely influential thinkers and writers on management theory and practice, stated in the 1970s, that the age of mass production in the U.S. had reached its limit, the report states. "Rather than telling the workers just what to do and how to do it, managers would have to hire and train very high quality staff, set the goals, support the workers in every possible way and then get out of their way, " the report states. "The workers, who would themselves be the experts in the work, would have to figure out how best to meet the challenges they faced and would have to hold each other accountable for delivering top performance."

Shifting Financing for Equity

NCEE also believes school financing should be moved to the state level rather than the local level. Local financing results in inequity, whereby wealthy communities have low tax rates and benefit from high tax yields, and poorer communities have very high tax rates to produce a low yield, the report states. By creating a state-level of funding, a system will be created which distributes resources in ways that would allow all students to achieve high standards. "Conservative governments [in Canada], in response to complaints from citizens about skyrocketing local tax rates, initiated a move [roughly 20 years ago] to steadily reduce reliance on local taxes and to increase the portion of the total budget paid for by the province," the report states. "Not surprisingly, the gross inequities that came with raising money locally are gone, too, and Canada, like the top-performing countries elsewhere, is moving toward a funding system intended to promote high achievement among all students, which means putting more money behind hard to educate children than children who are easier to educate."

These suggestions must be implemented otherwise the U.S. will continue to fall behind other countries and will no longer be able to justify why Americans are paid more for jobs that others in countries around the world do for less, Tucker says.

In regards to a well-known argument that other countries don't have the diversity of races and languages among its students—-which can prove challenging to school achievement—-that are found in the U.S., Tucker disagrees. The U.S. has no more diversity than countries such as Australia and Canada. What we need to address instead, says Tucker, is the country's income disparity--an issue that seemingly "predicts academic achievement."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, "I am much more optimistic than Marc that the U.S., including state and local governments, is in the midst of adopting a number of the core elements of high-performing education systems."

To put the whole system into place, Tucker says it would take decades. However, he continued to say that in order to see substantial improvement, it would not take very long and it may even be within three or four years. "We must understand that we cannot fool ourselves but I have never doubted for a minute that we cannot fix this," Tucker says.

Charlotte Adinolfi is an intern for District Administration.