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Letters to the Editor

Readers speak out.

Looking Beyond Our Borders

Here is feedback from our February 2012 cover story, “What Can U.S. Schools Learn from Foreign Counterparts,” from some prominent K12 leaders:

Kudos to Ed Finkel for his in-depth look at this issue. U.S. educators can learn a great deal from high-performing counterparts—and, for the first time, that is what we are doing. Last December, the OECD released a report entitled Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States. I asked OECD to prepare that study because several nations are outeducating the United States, and I wanted to know what we could learn from them.

We followed up on the OECD study with the first-ever International Summit on the Teaching Profession, co-sponsored last March with OECD and Education International. It was so successful that on March 14-15 we are holding it again, this time on the theme “Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders.”

These top-performing nations not only are doing a better job of accelerating achievement and attainment nationwide than America, but they are also doing a better job of closing achievement gaps among minority and disadvantaged students.

While there is much to learn from high-performing countries, there is no single recipe for building a strong teaching profession. And it is clear that some of the nationwide reforms adopted in high-performing education systems are not likely to be adopted here. Nearly all of the high-performing nations and regions in the OECD study have national standards, a national curriculum, a grade-by-grade curriculum framework and high-stakes national exams given to students at key gateways, such as when they exit secondary school.

The tradition of local and state financing is much stronger here than in most top-performing countries. The federal government does not set national standards. By law, we cannot prescribe a national curriculum. And we do not support high-stakes exams that effectively determine a student’s postsecondary educational options.

What’s not only possible but critical is that we do more to hire and retain high-quality teachers. With more than a million teachers retiring by the end of the decade, we must attract top talent to America’s classrooms.

Still, transforming education in America along the lines, say, of Finland’s example is more challenging here than in a small nation or province. Finland has eight university-based teacher-preparation programs. The United States has more than 1,400 education schools, regulated by 50 states and voluntary accreditation bodies.

Less than 5 percent of children in Finland are poor; in the United States, more than 20 percent of children live in poverty, and the population is roughly 60 times as large. Some researchers, including Marc Tucker, who is quoted in the story, assert that leading education reforms undertaken in this nation are conspicuously absent from the best-performing countries. I respectfully disagree.

For the first time, the United States is embracing a number of core elements of high-performing nations, marking a sea change from past practice. The first shift is the state-led design and adoption of higher, internationally benchmarked academic standards—and the development of a new generation of assessments that will test higher-order thinking skills, much like the high-quality assessments used overseas. The second development is the $4 billion Race to the Top competition. For the first time, states are deeply engaged in coherent, coordinated and comprehensive reform. Finally, the Obama administration’s $4 billion school turnaround program is an unprecedented effort to redirect resources to the neediest students and correct the imbalance that had made the United States one of only a handful of countries to not target greater resources toward the lowest-need students.

Arne Duncan
U.S. Department of Education

Teaching to high stakes international tests and seeking our inspiration from other countries is not the answer. If we do so, it could dumb down our current educational system. It will cause the narrowing of what education is and ignore the talents and interests that the diverse students we educate possess. The problem is not our performance on international tests, the problem is we are using the wrong metrics to determine what a quality education is.

We need to create the conditions in the classroom where students are doing original work in which the teacher does not know the answer, where students are in control of the learning instead of the teacher, where students are able to problem solve across multiple disciplines, in unpredictable situations, in areas in which they are unfamiliar, as members of an international team in order to create and invent. This presupposes they are able to ask third-order questions and are fluent in multiple cultures and fluent in at least one world language. These outcomes are not measured on any international test in existence but are essential for students to compete in the global market.

William C. Skilling
Oxford Community Schools

The article on Marc Tucker’s important work on international benchmarking focuses on other countries’ use of high-quality curriculum and exams and their adaptation to U.S. schools. Another striking lesson from the high-performing and rapidly improving countries. I have studied is their intense focus on the quality of teachers. Recognizing that education has to compete with other sectors for talent, they intentionally seek to attract the best possible people into teaching through four simple steps: align initial salaries to those of other college graduates, provide high-quality initial preparation, establish clear career paths to leadership roles in the school, and use bully pulpits to promote the value of teaching.

The career paths are rooted in significant professional development and premised on teachers’ performance, as measured by multifaceted evaluations. This is a simple but powerful formula that we should find ways to emulate.

Vivien Stewart
Senior Advisor for Education
Asia Society


This article underscores something the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has long affirmed: The world is changing, and to remain competitive, our students must graduate ready to take on the challenges of an interconnected, global economy. In education, just as in business, the world continues to innovate, and the projects featured here highlight some new approaches, brought from overseas, that move beyond a narrow curriculum and assessment regime to embrace P21’s four C’s: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. These skills are part of the P21 Framework, which has been recognized by employers and higher education leaders as key for success in school and life in the 21st century, but is often overlooked in our test-driven policy environment.

That other countries are emphasizing skills-infused curricula and performance-based assessment regimes to enhance rigor and engagement should serve as a wake-up call to our policy makers to support forward-thinking educational options and to embrace 21st-century skills to unleash the creativity and innovation within our own education system.

Timothy Magner
Executive Director
Partnership for 21st Century Skills


The most important lesson to take from high-performing nations is that we can, in fact, do better. Finland was desperate for school reform 30 years ago.

We actually know the model: Focus on what is taught, by whom and how. But our approach has been more indirect: Let the market or an accountability system push us. The Common Core standards offer an important but ultimately meager foundation; we need broader expectations.

We also need to attend to the complexities of teaching too often ignored outside a crisis or an extraordinary success. We must accelerate efforts to strengthen teaching and engage students and parents. The time for pilots has passed because we know what must be done. To help, we can marshal digital innovations that have reshaped other industries. With the right support for teachers, we can have schools that are high tech and high touch. This blended instruction leverages the best that teachers and technology each offer.

Rudy F. Crew
Revolution K12