What Really Sets the World Leaders in Education Apart from the USA

Go to the head of the classBy 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.

Vivien-StewartAt 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.

better teachersThat’s a major element in the formula for the success of the countries exalted for their K-12 education al systems.

We would do well to follow their lead.

2 Responses to “What Really Sets the World Leaders in Education Apart from the USA”

  1. 1 tcuknapp April 11, 2013 at 11:44 am

    I totally agree that attracting the brightest and most passionate people in a profession to be teachers will benefit students and the education system. The problem is that most of the brightest and most passionate want to be compensated accordingly for their gifts and abilities. Most of the brightest and most passionate are looking for careers that will pay them well for their efforts. Although teachers don’t make as little as many jobs would pay, they certainly are not making the type of money that would appear very attractive to someone highly skilled in a particular subject area.

    In addition to providing continued professional support for teachers, it would help if there was a more individualized way teachers are paid. A predetermined pay scale where teachers receive more simply for having been showing up to work for more years is not motivating for teachers to be more creative and innovative in their classrooms.

    No matter how self-motivated you are, it is still discouraging when you work side by side with someone else who doesn’t put in nearly as much effort and doesn’t see nearly the results you do, yet gets the same compensation for it. There needs to be a better way to recognize and reward great educators. Those things would also stand to make the profession as a whole more attractive to those considering a career path.

    Like you said, teachers in these other countries are esteemed, not taken for granted. We would do well to learn from them.


    • 2 billhenk April 11, 2013 at 11:49 pm

      All of your points are well taken. Thanks. It’s certainly true that the best and brightest will have options. That’s why I also stipulated that they must be fervent about teaching as well. You’re right that we’ll lose the ones who don’t come by such motivation naturally. As for merit pay, it certainly seems fair in principle to me; the problem is in finding a valid, reliable, and fair way to make those decisions. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I haven’t seen any approach or system that has me convinced just yet. And no profession is well-served by slackers. Lastly, although teachers have never been compensaated particularly well, they used to at least be well respected in America. I’d be interested in figuring out why, when, and how that status changed for the worst.


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