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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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American schoolchildren are heading back to the classroom amid an intensifying debate as shrill with urgency as the bell urging them to their desks: how to ensure that they will be able to compete in a global market when they graduate.

Study after study in recent years suggests that American children fall well behind kids from Seoul to Helsinki, putting them at a great disadvantage in an increasingly knowledge-driven and global economy. The United States ranked 30th in mathematics literacy, 20th in science, and 14th in reading in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In math, noted a February report to the US Education Department by the Equity and Excellence Commission, "only one in four of America's 52 million K-12 students is performing on par today with the average student in the highest-performing school systems in the world."

These shortcomings take their toll on the economy. In a 2010 study, Eric Hanushek of Stanford University and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich charted a correlation between gross domestic product and PISA scores: They posited that it would take the US 20 years to implement the kind of reforms that would enable it to reach Finnish levels – and that, if the US did that, its GDP would grow by 700 percent by the end of the century.

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So what can get America to the Finnish line?

The Monitor looked at five lauded programs around the globe that hold lessons in areas in which the US struggles: educational equity, testing, vocational options, summer learning loss, and well-rounded education that includes everything from arts to literacy and numeracy.

Of course, no single policy is a magic bullet, and the list is by no means all-inclusive. But it is "the principles underneath particular innovations [that matter]," says Marc Tucker, author of "Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems" and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington. "Principles will travel; particulars will not."

US getting beaten at its own game?

There is one metric in which the US consistently excels, show studies by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, an international consortium of 400 researchers: entrepreneurship. Scholars have noticed an inverse correlation between GEM rankings and PISA scores. This has worried some Singaporeans, for example, who fear that rote memorization and intensely focused studies might account for their nation's high PISA scores but bode ill for innovation-driven growth.

A company like Apple would not emerge in a structured country like Singapore, the company's cofounder Steve Wozniak told the BBC in 2011, because that would require a society with great artists, musicians, and writers. "Where are the creative people?" he asked.

This is a question Singapore's leaders had already picked up on when they made the arts a cornerstone of the city-state's effort to boost creativity and innovation. Already, Singapore is pointing to correlations some researchers have documented between arts study and academic success, even as tighter budgets and teaching to standardized tests have forced US schools to cut arts curriculum.

"We're the only country in the world that tests every child every year," says Linda Darling-Hammond, founder of the Stanford (University) Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and the School Redesign Network. "We attached high stakes [to these tests] so people thought they could only pay attention to that," to the detriment of science, social studies, art, music, or physical education.

Essays show more than multiple choice

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.

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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