Bill Gates: Who's Beating the US in Education, and What We Do About It

Bill Gates at the "Collecting Innovation Today" interview in June 2009. (OnInnovation/Flickr)

“A half-century ago, the U.S. was the undisputed leader in education — the first country to achieve universal secondary education and the first to make college broadly accessible. Today, other countries are leap-frogging the U.S. on global measures of student skills and knowledge. A World-Class Education is a book I recommend to learn more about what other countries are doing.”Bill Gates

Thus starts Bill Gates’ personal review of Asia Society senior advisor Vivien Stewart’s book, A World-Class Education.

Why is he reading this book? Here’s some context.

Asia Society, led by then-vice president Stewart, started its work in comparative education six years ago. At the time, new data out of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development showed the United States’ education system suffered a plunge from its former No. 1 ranking.

There was hard evidence that a major indicator of a nation’s economic strength is found in the success of its schools. This was dire news, made only worse with 2009 data that showed U.S. education ranking slipped even more. Meanwhile, eight of the 10 highest performing school systems in the world were in Asia. Asia Society began examining what they were doing, and what was happening in American schools. The World-Class Education book grew out of that fieldwork.

Gates, through his work in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has promised his personal fortune to improving human lives and potential. A major focus of the foundation’s work is in education reform.

“Others are leap-frogging ahead of the U.S. in #STEM,” Gates tweeted, referencing science, technology, engineering, and math — fields critical to the innovation economy. “A World-Class Education is sobering,” he wrote, recommending the book to his 9 million followers.

But Asia Society’s work isn’t simply meant to raise awareness. It’s about finding solutions.

The American education system is faced with two urgent and intertwined imperatives: to upgrade education for the global innovation age in which the rise of Asia is of critical importance, and to overcome the barriers to provide every student (not just the lucky few) with an excellent education.

An Asia Society team started looking at educational practices in countries with high achieving schools. Despite geopolitical, economic, and cultural differences, there were common strategies found in successful school systems: they invested in teachers; they were dedicated to providing equal access to an excellent education regardless of a student’s socio-economic background; and they trained students for the global innovation economy. Read more about these and other indicators.

Gates, in his review, highlighted the fact that small improvements in the skills of a nation’s labor force can have a big impact on its economy, and urged American schools to implement changes in a hurry. “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.”

In order to be competitive, we have to be collaborative.

Asia Society convened a high-level working group called the Global Cities Education Network (GCEN). It is comprised of education leaders and researchers from Chicago, Denver, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Seattle, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, and Toronto. The Network’s task is to find proof that indeed, school systems can realize significant improvements with relatively small changes. The cities identify and work on common problems, and implement new policies that will hopefully usher in increased student achievement and ultimately greater prosperity.

Bill Gates’ review of ideas coming out of Asia Society’s work underscores the importance of looking at comparative data and practices to improve education. I hope that his followers will heed his advice and not only read the book, but also engage local education communities and act upon the lessons learned from the world.

About the Author

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Anthony Jackson is vice president for Education and Leadership at Asia Society.