Five Things US Schools Can Learn From the Rest of the World

Hundreds of reforms are introduced into American school systems every year. Unfortunately, most fail to achieve the substantial improvements that their advocates hoped for and, overall, U.S. educational performance has been flat for the past 20 years.

We now know that a number of other countries — primarily Asian nations — have gotten a lot better than the U.S., accelerating educational improvement in a short time and on a large scale. Their success in improving hundreds of schools is inspiring. But what exactly has enabled them to raise their game and become global high performers? And are there lessons for U.S. schools?

My new book, A World-Class Education: Lessons from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, tells the stories of five very different systems: Australia, Canada, China (Shanghai), Finland and Singapore. Despite differences in policy details and practices, as well as in the cultural contexts and political systems in these countries, there are clearly some common drivers of success.

Here are the five big lessons from some of the world's top-performing systems:

1. Long-Term Vision

The political leaders of countries with high-performing education systems share a conviction about the centrality of education to their dreams for their society: To raise people from poverty, achieve greater equality, develop a well-functioning multi-cultural society and, certainly, create a thriving economy and a growing number of good jobs.

Each of these systems has a long-term vision for how education can achieve this, which is widely shared inside and outside the education system. In Singapore, for example, the vision helped to propel their economy from third world to first; China's 2020 vision was developed with online input from millions of people and includes universal high school graduation and world-class universities; Alberta asked all its citizens to contribute to a dialog on what the educated Albertan of 2030 should look like; Finland's vision was to become a modern society and economy, free from domination by larger powers.

2. Sustained Leadership

Major reforms are often triggered by an economic, social, or political crisis and may be led by a single strong leader. Such reform efforts can bring about significant improvement within a three- to five-year period, but substantial changes in performance or closing achievement gaps on a large scale require a longer time frame than most political cycles. Therefore high leadership turnover is a fundamental barrier to sustaining change.

Understanding this, the premier of Ontario regularly brought together all the key stakeholders — teachers, parents, business, students — to get buy-in, iron out problems as they arose, and maintain sustained support for Ontario's reforms over a period of many years.

U.S. states and districts could likewise bring together a group of key stakeholders to define a vision for what the educated American should look like in 2030 and to build momentum towards this vision through political cycles and leadership turnover.

3. Ambitious Standards

Countries that excel set ambitious, universal, and clear standards for all their students, typically at the national or state/provincial level. The fundamental problem with locally set standards is that they lead to wildly varying expectations of performance and lower achievement overall.

More countries are now creating common standards across all jurisdictions. In the United States, the Common Core State Standards are following international best practice in establishing fewer, clearer, and higher standards in some academic areas, but high-performing systems have standards in all subjects to avoid narrowing the curriculum.

4. Commitment to Equity

Leaders in every country proclaim their commitment to equity, but successful education systems focus on achieving equity in a strong and deliberate way.

The U.S.'s mediocre performance on international assessments is due in part to the large percentage of students scoring at or below basic levels.

High-performing systems use a variety of approaches to minimize the impact of social background on student achievement. These include system wide policies like equitable funding, having common high expectations for all students, and ensuring high-quality teachers in every school. They also include classroom-level interventions like focused early literacy and math support and a variety of family and community supports outside of school.

These policies don't eliminate the gap between the children of parents with widely varying education levels, but they do significantly level the playing field to create a society that is open to talent from wherever it may come.

5. High-Quality Teachers and School Leaders

Vision, leadership, high standards, and commitment to equity are crucial starting points, but unless they affect teaching and learning in the classroom, they won't bring about significant change.

There is broad agreement among high-performing and rapidly improving countries that no matter what reform strategy they are pursuing, the quality of an education system rests on the quality of its teachers. These systems adopt policies to attract, prepare, support, reward, retain, and advance high-quality teachers.

In general, high-performing systems put the energy up front in recruiting and supporting high-quality teachers rather than on the back end of reducing attrition and firing weak teachers.

All countries face challenges in adapting their education systems to the vast transformations taking place around the world. No nation has a monopoly on excellence.

None of these lessons is rocket science and many of these elements can indeed be found in districts and states around the United States, but rarely all of them together. Many of the high-performing countries have, in fact, studied the peaks of American research and innovation and then adapted them, often more systematically, to their own systems.

The United States is a very resourceful country. If it combines its own assets with the world's best practices, it could indeed develop a world-class education system for American children and grandchildren.

The 2012 International Summit on the Teaching Profession will be held March 14-15 in New York City. Asia Society is proud to partner on this event along with the U.S. Department of Education, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Education International (EI) the global federation of teacher unions, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), National Education Association (NEA), and public broadcaster WNET. The summit will be hosted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A report on the summit, written by Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society, is forthcoming. You can watch live webcasts of the summit here.

About the Author

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Vivien Stewart is Senior Advisor to Asia Society. She promotes international studies and language learning in schools, and convenes U.S. and Asian education leaders around critical issues.