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A World-Class Education

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Failing Grade

A World-Class Education

We’re spending twice as much on education today as we did 20 years ago. Yet, U.S. students ranked 17th in science, 25th in math, and 14th in reading in the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the most widely used global assessment of student achievement.  Who’s beating the U.S. in these important categories – and how?

Vivien Stewart in her book, A World Class Education, looks at five countries—Singapore, Canada, Finland, China, and Australia—where students are doing significantly better on global assessments than students in the U.S. Despite differences in the political systems and cultural contexts of these countries, there are some common policies and practices that drive success. Understanding how other countries are succeeding can offer insights that help us do a better job here in the U.S. 

As Stewart points out, even a small improvement in the skills of a nation’s labor force can have a big impact on its economy. In a global market where companies can find well-educated workers in a growing number of countries —often at lower-cost— the U.S. will face greater competition if this trend continues. 

Finland is an interesting example because as recently as 1970, only 40 percent of Finnish adults held a high school diploma. Today, its students rank among the top on global assessments of student learning. 

One key to Finland’s success was the decision in 1979 to require a two-year master’s degree for all teachers, even those teaching primary school. Teachers are trained to spot students who aren’t doing well early on, and each school has a multidisciplinary team of education professionals available to support students and help them catch up. Finland also did away with traditional structure and replaced it with a more flexible approach that encourages creativity and problem solving, individualized learning, and a wider range of academic and vocational options.

The modernization of Finland’s education system has helped put it in the ranks of the most innovative and prosperous countries. Per capita GDP in Finland is higher than in the United Kingdom, France, or Japan. And teaching is a much sought-after profession that is held in high-regard.

Like Finland, Singapore decided that its future lay in tapping its human capital. In the Singapore system, all the key elements work closely together to produce continuous improvement. Over the last decade, Singapore has introduced innovative and flexible learning choices for students. It even has a policy called “teach less, learn more” that’s designed to encourage more innovative curricula and use of classroom time.

Singapore also is investing significantly in teachers—with strong teacher evaluation and personnel systems and intensive training. With all this, it’s not really a surprise that Singapore’s students rank near the top in international assessments, or that its per capita GDP is higher than the U.S., Canada, or most countries in Europe.

I agree with Stewart that the quality of student learning is only as good as the quality of the teachers. In the U.S., it will require investing in strong evaluation and development systems that involve teachers from the start, include multiple measures of effective teaching, and that fuse teacher evaluations with high-quality professional development.

I recommend this book as a good overview of what other countries are doing, although I would have liked to see more data. For example, the book spends very little time on the length of the school day or school year, which many people think are key factors in educational achievement. And it doesn’t explain how the U.S. manages to spend so much on education without having smaller class sizes or higher teacher pay.

All in all, it’s an interesting view into five countries which are making remarkable educational progress and that offer lessons for us in the U.S.

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