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Education solutions from abroad for chronic U.S. school problems

From teach-to-test straitjacket to school disparity, chronic school problems that American schools face are being solved in different ways around the world.  

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Province-wide school systems in Australia offer compelling models as the US develops a new set of tests tied to the Common Core State Standards that all but five states are adopting. In New South Wales and Victoria, teachers use a variety of means to assess their students' knowledge and abilities, but externally administered tests only take place in Grades 3, 5, 7, and 9 with a comprehensive state exam in Grade 12.

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Their high-stakes exams use few multiple-choice questions and rely primarily on essays. Teachers equip students with facts and formulas, yes, but they have to also teach them to analyze, extrapolate, and communicate. It's the difference between drilling them to pencil-in the bubble indicating Plato was the author of "Republic" and engendering the skills needed to explain why and how his writings were influential.

Similarly, a strategy that Ontario initiated in 2004 stresses literacy and numeracy not in isolation, but within the context of a broad range of subjects. Students aren't just drilled on grammar or formulas. Teachers also stress writing, critical thinking, and mathematics in science, history, and social science – even in dance, as in a summer program in Toronto designed to combat the summer learning loss that disproportionately affects children of low-income families.

Ms. Darling-Hammond hopes the Common Core will bring back a broader perspective. The Common Core, which sets out what students are expected to learn, has stirred controversy, but many critics and supporters agree that its success depends on an effective infrastructure: essay-based tests developed with teacher input, high-quality curricula and textbooks – and time.

American teachers spend, on average, 20 to 30 percent more hours teaching in class than do their Australian and Canadian counterparts, and almost twice as many as Finnish peers, all of whose students outrank Americans in international tests. Teachers point out that this leaves less time for planning lessons, collaborating and consulting with fellow teachers and counselors, engaging in professional development, devising innovative ways to assess what their students know, and meeting individually with students.

Not only do students lose out, experts say, but teachers feel isolated and overwhelmed, contributing to teacher turnover, which affects the entire system. A 2007 study by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future found the cost of a teacher leaving runs from $4,000 in rural districts to more than $17,000 in urban districts. Moreover, student learning and achievement also suffer: Attrition rates are chronically high in at-risk schools that typically serve lower-income children.

Faced with a similar inequity, Shanghai, a city whose population of 23.8 million equals that of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi combined, responded by, among other measures, hiring high-performing schools to mentor and guide lower-performing schools. To date, outsiders do not have the data necessary to quantify the program's effect, but decisionmakers in Shanghai's school system credit it for the admirable degree of consistency in student performance across economic strata. Ben Jensen and Joanna Farmer of the Grattan Institute, a public policy think tank in Melbourne, Australia, found that – unlike in the US – students from poor families in Shanghai are not more likely to fall behind academically.

Peaks of excellence along diverging paths

Finally, there are lessons to be gleaned from systems that offer young people different educational paths. High school graduation rates may be rising, but more than 20 percent of young Americans aren't getting a diploma now, when postsecondary education is increasingly a must. Germany has one of the oldest vocational and apprenticeship programs, continuously tweaked to meet the needs of its diverse population. Today, as choices in higher education multiply and people increasingly dip back into school over their careers, the principles underlying vocational education in Germany may be more germane than ever.

Many great educational models around the world had their genesis, Mr. Tucker points out, right in America. Experts and policymakers from other countries, he says, "come here [to observe] what they call 'peaks of excellence.' We have many of them." The difference, he adds, is that the successful ones have woven these peaks of excellence into "highly integrated instructional systems."

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