There is so much education research out there focused on the myriad details that it’s hard to keep track of it all. But the latest study that’s generating buzz—and standing out—in reform circles zooms out and examines education from a big picture, global perspective.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform by Marc S. Tucker is a report that actually stems from the last two chapters of a book that will be published in September by Harvard Education Press. The project began when Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to study the education strategies that other countries have used to outpace us.
American students are now ranked below those in almost 40 developed nations in terms of science, math and reading according to a study by the Programme for International Student Assessment, and this new report shows that the most popular tactics in the US—like smaller class sizes and charter schools—are not making the significant difference that has been hoped for.
The National Center on Education and Economy, a Washington DC think tank, picked up the work and focused on education systems in the highest performing countries—Finland, Singapore, Japan, China (Shanghai), and Canada (Ontario)—to see what we may learn from their successes.
Based on their findings, the team makes a series of practical recommendations to improve the education system in the United States. It’s a system that was developed in the industrial factory era, treating teachers like blue collar workers and students like commodities to be churned out most efficiently. What other countries have done differently is look outside their borders for ideas that work and continually adapt their education system to be aligned with new economies and societal shifts. The researchers conclude it’s long overdue for the US to make significant changes—based on what has been proven to work abroad—to bring our education system into the 21st Century.
Specific ideas include:
- Expanding national curriculum standards—not to prescribe day-to-day instruction, but to create a unified framework of development goals for each grade.
- Using smarter and less frequent testing, like other countries’ writing-based assessments only at key transitional points during a student’s education, not every year.
- Elevating the teaching profession to attract and retain quality educators.
This last point, in fact, is where the researchers spend most of their time. They make the case to move teaching education to more prestigious institutions and create more rigorous entrance requirements (for instance, in Finland, only one in 10 applicants is accepted to Masters-level teaching programs); require more intensive subject matter study in addition to pedagogy and post-graduate apprenticeships (think the process medical doctors go through); set up better compensation models on par with other “professional” level careers; and empower teachers to choose paths for continued development and career growth, design new instruction methods, and advocate for educational improvements.
The idea is that if the smartest, most qualified and dedicated people are becoming teachers—and are continually strengthened and motivated to do their best work—our students will rise to be the next generation of intelligent, successful workers and citizens.
It is an ambitious and complex proposal, and one that certainly shakes up the status quo. But as they conclude:
“The claim that this agenda has on our attention is simply that is has worked. It has worked in countries as different as Singapore and Finland, Japan and Canada. It is not a Republican agenda or a Democratic agenda. It is neither conservative nor liberal. While it requires major changes in the way we do things in the United States, it demands changes more or less equally of all parties. The changes it calls for are as dramatic as the changes made in government in the Progressive Era, but let the record show that the United States made those changes. It can make these, too, if it chooses to do so.”
You can read the full report here.
What do you think we can learn from and even implement from these other countries’ education systems?