Can U.S. schools adopt education practices of top-performing nations?

Published: Thursday, May 24 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011, Lindsay Ehlers teaches math to her fourth grade class at Liberty Lake Elementary School in Liberty Lake Washington.

Nick Geranios, Associated Press

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Beverly Hills, California is famous for many things, not the least of which is its public schools. The Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) is one of the top performing districts in California, and the country. In recent state and national reading and math assessments, the district's students scored in the 80th percentile.

BHUSD students' performance on international assessments is less than impressive. Its students rank in the 53 percentile in mathematics and reading when compared to countries such as Finland, China, Korea and Canada. Poor performance on international exams isn't just a problem in Beverly Hills. Although Americans spend 50 percent more on education than other industrialized nations, they score 23rd in science, 17th in reading and 31st in mathematics of a total of 34 nations, according to data collected by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based group that conducts international education comparisons.

American students' lackluster performance on international exams raises concern among economists and policymakers who argue that the U.S. needs to raise its grades or risk economic stagnation. "It is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow," said President Obama at a White House event last September. Obama's statement is based on the idea that "a greater amount of of educational attainment indicates more skilled and more productive workers, who in turn increase the economy's output of goods and services," said Robert Barro, professor of economics at Harvard University.

In the last ten years, attempts to improve American education have focused on teacher accountability through the high stakes testing mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This strategy appears to have had little impact on student performance, however. Since NCLB was implemented in 2002, American performance has actually decreased. American students ranked 18th in mathematics in 2000 but fell to 31st place in 2009, according to OECD data.

Increasingly there is a push to ditch high stakes testing in favor of the educational strategies used by top performing countries. "To the extent that the U.S. can copy or adapt, and beg, borrow and steal successful practice from other nations, we should do so," said Secretary of education Arne Duncan at an event sponsored by the National Center on Education and Economy in Washington in 2011.

While different countries have different approaches to and attitudes about education, there are things that all high performing countries do. Two of these are paying teachers well and keeping students in school longer.

Some object to these proposals on the basis of cost: adding more school days and paying teachers more will cost states money they don't have. Other objections to the idea of borrowing the practices of other countries are more philosophical. Americans have different cultural values from many top performing countries which may limit the transferability of their techniques, according to James Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA.

Teach like a champion

Top performing countries share particular attitudes and characteristics, according to U.N. education analyst Edward Fiske. First among these is a national commitment to education, said Fiske. National commitment to education manifests in the way nations recruit and pay teachers, UCLA's Stigler says.

Unlike American teachers who come from the bottom 30 percent of their university classes, in Finland admission to education programs is competitive. Successful completion of a teacher training course is no guarantee of a job, however. There is under a 10 percent acceptance rate into the profession. The situation is similar in Korea. Elementary education majors are recruited from the top 5 percent of their high school classes, according to the Center for International Benchmarking in Education. Moreover, only 30 percent of secondary school teaching candidates in Korea are able to find jobs.

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