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

China, Finland and Singapore are creating stronger students—and finally inspiring American educators to take action.
Singapore girls
Singaporean students are top-performers on the PISA exam, which is inspiring American educators to up the ante here in the U.S.

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.blond boy

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.”

A century ago, the United States was eager to benchmark its education system against the best in the world, primarily those of Germany and Scotland; but since World War II, Americans have come to believe they don’t have as much to learn from others, the report says. As a result, the United States has adopted very few of the strategies of best-performing countries, and the strategies the United States has adopted most enthusiastically are rarely found elsewhere. Tucker says that education leaders in high-performing countries not only haven’t replicated, but also would find downright “bizarre” such U.S. reforms as using standardized tests to evaluate teachers and then reward or punish them, fixing broken schools by “turning loose young entrepreneurs” who have little education experience, and funding charter schools that purport to “reform the system by taking schools out of the system.”

The countries that NCEE studied are either high-wage nations like Singapore or Finland or those like China that want to be high-wage nations. The report says that these countries recognize that education systems designed to sort students and give only some of them demanding curricula will not produce adequately educated citizens for the 21st century. Students in Shanghai were world champions in all three areas tested—math, science and reading—hence the title Surpassing Shanghai.

Countries that benchmark their own performance using one another’s results are trying to understand “what another country is trying to achieve, how they have gone about achieving it, what they would have done differently if they could have done so, what mistakes they made and how they address them, which factors most account for their achievements and so on,” the report says. “Benchmarking is a wide-ranging research program that never ends, because no country’s education system stands still very long.”

Bruce Hunter, associate executive director for advocacy and communications at the American Association of School Administrators, believes Tucker’s organization is going in the right direction to improve U.S. students’ performance on the PISA test. “You have to focus more on mastery of the content, and how to think about the content, and how to apply it. And we don’t do that,” he says. “Our tests that we use now are focused on recognition and recall. Recognition and recall are necessary to do critical thinking and to apply the knowledge, but they’re not sufficient.”

International Baccalaureate programs do teach those critical thinking skills, Hunter acknowledges, as do “mostly suburban districts where parents and the community see great value for the schools and pay for it.” But aside from that, he says, “if you want to see how well kids are using their knowledge to think critically and applying that knowledge to different situations, you have to teach differently. Our teachers have no incentive to teach that way. I’m hoping that the Common Core will lead us in that direction.” He adds, “I’m hoping now that the think tanks have figured out that the solution to American education that they gave us in 2001 had real limitations… It’s nice to see Marc Tucker and his group leading that conversation.”

Thawing Benchmarking Resistance

Tucker believes that U.S. resistance to benchmarking has begun to change—the U.S. Secretary of Education has asked the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers PISA, to produce a report on successful countries’ strategies, for example, and individual states are signing up to participate in the PISA testing—but it’s still an uphill argument overall. NCEE sees a handful of commonalities among top-performing countries, such as high standards for teachers and high pay to match. “Many countries with the best education records have much higher standards for getting into teachers’ colleges than we do,” Tucker says. “You could, of course, go to a school of education and say, ‘This is what they’re doing. Why don’t you?’ But the fact is, those countries pay teachers much more than we do. If you don’t raise teachers’ pay, you’re asking [U.S. education schools] to greatly reduce the size of their student body.” This is so, Tucker explains, because higher standards without the pay to match likely would reduce the appeal of teaching as a profession.

Countries that perform well on PISA also try to get all students to the same high standards by putting more resources behind the students who are harder to educate, Tucker says. “We’re doing the opposite,” he says. “The students who are easiest to educate have far more resources behind them. That’s a very complicated matter because of our governance system. What is spent is a function of local control and local property tax bases.” Most high-performing countries have a central governance mechanism that also determines teachers’ pay more generally and sets standards at schools of education, Tucker says.

Replicating High Standards

Lacking the ability to single-handedly change finance and governance issues, NCEE has launched in the past couple of years a set of pilot projects aimed at replicating the use of standardized but very essay- and content-heavy board examination systems that determine whether students receive their high school certification, along with curricula geared toward making that grade. While Tucker agrees with those who think U.S. students already take too many tests, he believes the content knowledge and thinking abilities measured in the board exams are well worth it. If he had his druthers, he would substitute the board exams for the current testing under No Child Left Behind, which many educators see as quashing students’ imagination and thirst for knowledge, rather than adding to what’s already in place.

“One of the things we’ve observed in our work is that many countries experiencing high student performance are using board examination systems at the high school level,” Tucker says. “We’ve combined that with another feature: They typically have a common curriculum, highly specified through age 16 or grade 10, after which students can, in effect, go their separate ways. They don’t have high-school diplomas as we do; they have qualifications that students earn.”

That common curriculum goes far beyond the mathematics and language arts skills that have been the focus of NCLB and that, in a somewhat broader way, constitute the core of the Common Core State Standards. It includes social studies, science, art and music. “The Common Core standards are a step toward that, and I think it’s a good step, but it’s just a beginning,” says Tucker.

Excellence for All

Kentucky boysNCEE’s pilot program to replicate these features, called “Excellence for All,” has been rolled out in 21 high schools in four states: Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky and Mississippi. In the American context, the program aims to prepare students either to attend college without needing remedial coursework, or to enroll in a technical program leading toward an industry-recognized certificate. Each must offer English, mathematics, sciences, arts, and American and world history.

Funding per school, obtained from a variety of sources—such as state government in Kentucky’s case, and private foundations in Arizona and in one of the Connecticut schools—ranges from $17,000 to $32,000 per year. Most of the schools currently participating are regular public schools, although some are charter, university lab or Indian-reservation schools. There’s a wide range of school sizes and an urban-suburban-rural mix and the length of the school day is about the same. “We deliberately got a set of schools that are reasonably representative of the U.S. as a whole,” Tucker says.

As in the international systems that NCEE studied, students will take comprehensive board exams at the end of their sophomore year. If they pass, they will have the choice of staying in their high school to take courses that will prepare them for a technical career, attending community college to get an associate degree or to transfer to a four-year school, or taking a certified “upper division” program for the final two years of school that’s designed to get them into a selective college. Those board exams include the University of Cambridge International Examinations used in more than 150 countries, as well as the ACT’s QualityCore offering, the College Board’s Advanced Placement International Diploma Program, and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program.

“Excellence for All” differs from systems in other countries in that students are “tracked” less aggressively; if they don’t meet standards at the end of sophomore year, their high school will be required to anayze their scores and put together a customized program designed to bring them up to standards the following year. Some students might take two years to do so; others will take three and even four. This contrasts with the systems in the countries that provided the program’s inspiration, where college is not an option for those who don’t make their marks in the first two years; such students are tracked into a technical college or just sent out into the workforce. “In most other countries, the exams are used to sort them out,” Tucker says.

Interactive Collaboration

The state of Kentucky has enrolled six schools in five districts, five of them rural and the sixth in the state capital of Frankfort, says Pat Trotter, staff assistant in the division of innovation and partner engagement in the Kentucky Department of Education, which has a two-year budget of about $400,000 for the program. Some schools have accepted their entire freshman classes into “Excellence for All,” while others, the program’s name notwithstanding, have enrolled only some “cream-of-the-crop-type kids,” she says.

In the early months of the program, students and teachers across the state definitely feel challenged, Trotter reports. “It has really ramped up the expectations for them,” she says.Kentucky chose the ACT QualityCore curriculum and testing, and the state held a five-day teacher workshop last summer followed by online webinars to shore up areas where they’ve had additional needs in either instructional practices or basic knowledge. Trotter likes the ACT’s problem-solving approach to learning. “It’s asking the kids, so what? How are you going to apply it?”

In a biology class, rather than simply learning terms, students are told, “Here’s a problem that might occur in the world. How would you bring what you know to the problem?” Such questions are explored in interactive, collaborative fashion rather than individually. “There’s a lot more critical thinking involved in this [curriculum]—what they’re calling 21st-century skills,” Trotter says. “Part of our challenge is how to change these classrooms so this rigor does occur.”

The rural schools in the program are figuring out how to handle situations in which students aren’t meeting benchmarks but can’t stay after school because they don’t have home Internet access. The state is addressing this on a school-by-school basis. “We’re all feeling our way through this since this is the first semester in the state,” Trotter says.

College Readiness

That challenge is also on the docket at Medical Professions and Teacher Preparation Academy, which opened its doors in the 2010-2011 school year to sixth- through ninth-graders and will expand each year until it includes all four years of high school. The academy is one of 15 charter schools operated by Capital Region Education Council (CREC) in Hartford, Conn., an education service agency. CREC had been investigating how to benchmark using PISA testing when the organization heard about NCEE’s pilot and applied to participate in spring 2011.

Impressed with its depth and emphasis on inquiry and critical thinking, administrators at Medical Professions decided to use the Cambridge curriculum and testing system, says Anne McKernan, assistant superintendent of CREC. The program already has produced higher expectations for this year’s freshman class, and it has given the schools’ 24 teachers access to an extensive amount of proprietary professional development resources online that guide them through how to inculcate the new learning style, according to Principal Andy Skarzynski.

McKernan figures the district is spending “at least $25,000 to $30,000” this school year to start up the program, including time for planning curriculum, visits with staff from Cambridge when they held a training in Arizona, travel costs for teachers and administrators to attend that training, and online modules designed to firm up teachers’ understanding of their new expectations.

Newly passed state education legislation (Public Act 10-111) contained a “move on when ready” provision—Arizona has passed similar legislation—that has given students who pass the board examinations at the end of their sophomore year the opportunity to gain entry into community colleges and state universities, McKernan says. The academy’s first such cohort could do so in 2012. “A lot of kids will stay on to take the upper division,” McKernan predicts. “Passing that is an indication of readiness for a more competitive college.”

Greater Depth

The Corinth (Miss.) School District began participating this school year, after several months of curriculum planning and training from Cambridge staff that grounded teachers in the learning strategies that are embodied in the curriculum. To date, teachers at Corinth High School have found that the structure of the curriculum frees them to go into greater depth on important skills and concepts, allowing students to develop more understanding, and more reading and writing have been involved in assignments. Classrooms have become much more discussion-oriented, with teachers leading facilitating and asking leading questions rather than delivering instruction.

“Students are having to state opinions, they’re having to compare and contrast, they’re having to justify, and yet they’re having to back it up with information they have learned,” says Superintendent Lee Childress. “They’re having fewer multiple-choice-type tests and seeing more essay questions. Teachers are finding it takes more time to grade papers. … There’s not a lot of fluff in their textbooks; it goes straight to the facts, or straight to the subject matter. Students are having to read more carefully.”

The extra work hasn’t caused push back from teachers. “They see the results we’re beginning to get, in many cases from children who have not been as successful as we would like in the past,” says Childress. These children have become engaged by the more in-depth, discussion-oriented curriculum. “That’s giving teachers some additional drive and motivation to do this,” Childress explains.

Childress looks forward to the ability to benchmark exam results internationally. “That’s very important, for us to be able to look beyond this country, particularly in terms of making sure we are preparing children for college and for career readiness,” he says. “They are going to be competing with students not only across the United States but across the world. … As Marc Tucker has been highlighting, we have got to look beyond our country’s borders.”