By Bill Henk – Time and time again, the American educational system suffers badly from international comparisons in the media. News services of all types seem to delight in sharing reports of studies whose findings imply that our nation is becoming less and less globally competitive.
Think Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore here. These countries are, in terms of K-12 schooling, at the head of the class.
By contrast, the United States typically falls in the middle of the pack these days and sometimes worse. Let’s face it, this is a tough pill to swallow since we used to be regarded as the educational envy of the world.
But last week I picked up some important and surprising (and dare I say, gratifying?) insights about the countries in the winner’s circle that I want to share with you briefly.
As a teacher educator, one element of difference I had taken stock of beforehand was that entrance into their teacher preparation programs is extremely competitive. As a general rule, only graduates from the top third of their high school classes need apply. And I have to admit that I took some gratification from this finding, because as it turns out, the overwhelming majority of our Education majors here at Marquette meet that criterion. Chalk that up to a centralized admission process for the University, which also explains why our ACT scores compare so favorably with other colleges at our institution.
For the record, the other international comparison factors I knew something about were that teachers enjoyed significantly more planning time in these countries and orchestrated more high quality instructional time on task during their school days and school years. It shouldn’t surprise any of us that the way in which teachers and students spend their time in schools would affect the bottom line of achievement.
At any rate, it was my good fortune last week, along with representatives from other teacher education programs in Wisconsin, to experience a presentation by Vivien Stewart, author of the acclaimed book, “A World Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation.”
I actually somehow won a copy of this volume a few weeks back, and thought that it looked and sounded very interesting. But per the norm, it got put on top of the ridiculously large pile I keep in my home office of “stuff I really should read if, by some miracle, I actually find myself with a little time on my hands.”
But trust me, I’m going to make time to read this book. What I learned from Vivien is all the motivation I needed.
Until I do, though, all I feel comfortable offering up is what I regard as the key takeaways of her presentation in bullet form with a little follow-up commentary:
- These countries are not obsessed with testing and accountability as we are here
- The changes necessary to transform their educational system took decades, not merely months and years as our society expects
- An agreed upon national agenda exists for education in these countries
- Teachers are esteemed there, not portrayed as ineffectual, lazy, and greedy
- When they founder, teachers can expect support from their systems, not live in constant fear that a pink slip awaits
- Retention rates for the teaching profession in these countries are significantly better
- And, what most sets them apart is an unwavering commitment to the professional development of their teachers
In short, these countries don’t operate as though weighing the pig will somehow make it fatter. Testing is regarded as a means to acquire evaluative information that can lead to quality improvements. It’s not high stakes per se, and it is definitely not punitive.
They exercise reasonable amounts of patience, understanding that systemic change takes time and requires getting shareholders on the same page, not feuding about what delivery system is the best means for educating children.
The world leaders in education recognize that attracting bright, talented, passionate young people to the teaching profession and affirming and supporting them provides for greater work satisfaction, desirable workforce continuity, and the opportunity to continue to develop their capacity rather than cull them.
And I’ll end by telling you this much. I’m often asked what the most important thing we could do in our country to raise the bar on academic achievement. My answer is always the same — enhance the professional development of our teachers.
My logic is pretty straightforward. We know that the single most important determinant of children’s learning is their teacher. So let’s attract and recruit our best, brightest, and most fervent aspiring teachers, provide them with the best pre-service teacher preparation we can, support them on the job through mentoring and induction, and continue to develop their talents through graduate education and other meaningful and impactful professional development opportunities.
Better teachers, better learning outcomes. Simple as that.
We would do well to follow their lead.