Has Recent Coverage of Global School Rankings Missed the Point?

Students in class at the Jing'an Education College Affiliated School in Shanghai, China, whose school system was named "best in the world" by OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) earlier this week. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

Headlines around the world this week have been featuring a hotly contested debate about how societies should educate their youth for the global economy. On Tuesday, Shanghai's school system was named best in the world by OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), and the United States came in slightly below average among industrialized nations. These results shone a spotlight on the relative strengths and weaknesses of education systems in China, the United States, and countries around the world — but when the stakes are excellence and equity in education, pitting nations against each other is taking a narrow view. What's most compelling about the global education conversation isn't who's right and who's wrong, it's in the nuanced discourse about what each system is doing right, where there is room for improvement, and what we can learn from one another.

This Tuesday, December 10, in New York City, Asia Society presents "Making the Grade in Global Education," a public program that will examine these issues in a panel discussion among Susan Fuhrman, president of Columbia University Teachers College; Wendy Kopp, CEO and co-founder of Teach For All, an organization dedicated to ensuring educational excellence and equity; Andrea Pasinetti, the CEO and co-founder of Teach for China; and Tony Jackson, vice president for education and leadership at Asia Society.

For those who can't make it to the panel discussion on December 10, the program will also be a free live webcast at AsiaSociety.org/Live at 6:30 pm New York City time. Online viewers are encouraged to submit questions to moderator@asiasociety.org or via Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #askasia.

Asia Blog caught up with next week's panelists via email to ask what they see as the critical issues relating to equity and education.

What do you feel has been missing from or misinterpreted in mainstream coverage of the OECD rankings?

Tony Jackson: The big story behind PISA isn't the rankings — or debunking the rankings, as some journalists and bloggers have been doing. It's about what we can learn about excellence and equity. If we take the top 10 percent of the most privileged students in the United States, their mean score would be near the top of the international rankings. As we go down the socioeconomic ladder, skills drop. This means that American students do not have equal access to a good education. Shanghai, although not a nation, is a massive city with 12 million residents, many of whom are migrant laborers with little education. And yet, children from these families perform, on average, at a high level. Shanghai, and other high-performing systems, have cracked the code for providing all students equal access to a good education. That should be of significant interest to everyone involved in American education.

Susan, what does the OECD data tell you about the teaching profession?

Susan Fuhrman: One common trait of all high-performing systems is how they invest in teachers. The results suggest we look abroad for lessons about good teacher education. We must focus on what preservice candidates learn and how they learn (for instance, more collaboration time, more in-classroom learning). We know the imperative to recruit the highest qualified candidates; the challenge is doing that at the scale that the teaching profession demands. We can look to how other teacher training institutions around the world do this, and adopt ideas that will work in the United States.

Andrea, you were raised in New York City and went to China to launch Teach For China to address inequity issues. Tell us what compelled you.

Andrea Pasinetti: I came to China in 2007 to study Chinese as a Princeton undergraduate, and at the time I knew nothing about China's educational system. But as I conducted research on rural policies for my college thesis, I began visiting multiple rural communities and schools. One particular visit is still extremely vivid: I arrived late one night to a small village seven hours north of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. The next morning I awoke to attend classes and was quickly bombarded with questions by curious students. It wasn't hard to recognize that these children were incredibly smart and highly engaged, but it was heartbreaking to learn that many would not attend junior high, and that even fewer would make it to high school.

The headmaster told me it was impossible for his school to keep teachers because the village was remote and living conditions were challenging. It was the same in other rural locations, and the story was repeated by local teachers and education bureau officials everywhere I visited. Everyone was eager for good teachers — thanks to increased funding and government support, they had school buildings and infrastructure, but it remained challenging to recruit talent. I returned to Beijing with an incredible desire to alleviate this problem and I founded Teach For China to provide good teachers to students who needed them most.

Wendy, what inspired you to take on education globally after 20 years of focusing on American education?

Wendy Kopp: For several years I had been meeting inspiring social entrepreneurs from all over the world who had come across the model of Teach For America and were determined to bring it back to their countries to address the gap in educational opportunity. They wanted help recruiting and developing their nations' future leaders to join this mission, so I joined forces with the founder of Teach First in the United Kingdom to launch Teach For All in 2007. Just six years later, the Teach For All network includes partner programs in 32 countries on six continents. Each organization recruits, trains, and supports top college graduates and professionals to commit two years to teach in high-need communities and provide long-term leadership in pursuit of expanding educational opportunity. Because rich and poor countries alike face similar challenges in educating their most disadvantaged students, we've discovered that solutions can be adapted across borders, inspiring innovation and new ways of thinking that increase our collective impact.

Through this work, I've realized that education is no longer a country-by-country issue, but a global one. In today's world, our futures are connected regardless of national borders, and we all benefit from learning from each other's best practices. As this week's PISA results illustrate, we've seen that the systems in the world that are improving fastest are using similar strategies. They set high expectations of their students and embrace rigor curriculum that demands critical thinking. They place a high priority on teacher quality and development, and are focused on closing achievement gaps by providing disadvantaged students with more support, not less. PISA's top performers demonstrate Teach For All's core belief that equality and excellence must go hand in hand.

Why look abroad for educational policies? Are they transferable?

Tony Jackson: There is no cut-and-paste answer; all policies have to fit its unique context. But there are three reasons we should all be learning with the world as we strive to create better education systems:

1. There is much to learn: there are great examples of what high-quality education looks like around the world, and particularly in Asia we see how this is attainable at scale in a very short period of time.

2. No country knows it all: though many countries have examples of excellent practice, no country has a lock on what successful, high quality education should look like for all kids. That last part is key: for all kids.

3. Dialogue creates opportunity: if we want to get to the point of educating all students for success in the global economy, we have to have an open dialogue about our successes and challenges.

In the United States, as in many countries, we do know what it looks like to educate students successfully. Where the U.S. struggles is in doing this equitably and at scale. In East Asia, you see an intense focus on implementation of high-quality standards, a belief in children to succeed, and support for high-quality teachers and training. As we delve deeply into these issues in our work across countries, we have found emerging opportunities to build stronger educational practice by working together rather than alone.

It is easy to say we should learn from abroad, but tough to do. Collaboration is a first step. As in all the other areas where Asia Society works, sustained partnership is needed to support all kids in their journey to global competence and success.

About the Author

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Jessica Kehayes is executive director of Education at Asia Society. Her work focuses on preparing students and young leaders for the global economy and 21st century citizenship.