Education lessons from abroad: a tale of two countries

opposite approaches yield positive results in singapore, finland

Published: Sunday, Jan. 13 2013 11:25 p.m. MST

Other similarities between the education models of Singapore and Finland include cohesive national standards and a reliance on research-based practices backed up by data, Winner said.

Importing success

For the United States, there are obvious difficulties in trying to adopt education strategies from small countries with less poverty and ethnic diversity and more political cohesiveness and centralization.

"The tradition of local control and local financing is much stronger here than in most top-performing countries and provinces," Duncan said during a symposium speech. "The U.S. federal government does not set national standards. We have not and will not prescribe a national curriculum —and in fact we are barred by law from doing so."

Many strategies of top-performing countries can be imported, though. Every top-performing country is using data to mold instruction and improve performance, Duncan said, and that is something the United States can emulate.

Reforms that would be ungainly at the national level could be implemented by individual states, Ripley said, but ethnic diversity in the U.S. is often used as an excuse for discounting that chance of successfully adapting strategies that work in more homogeneous countries. And, she's not buying the excuse.

Not even "tiny New Hampshire, which is 96 percent white," has been able to improve education achievement the way Finland has, Ripley said. "You have to wonder if an individual state could do it, even if we can't make the whole country turn on a dime."

Ripley sees adoption of common core state standards by all but four U.S. states as a hopeful sign. The standards will improve achievement over time, especially in math, through focusing on greater depth of understanding for basic skills, instead of the current emphasis on shallower knowledge of a wider range of skills. Focus on depth, not breadth, is a feature of successful education systems from abroad, including Singapore's and Finland's, Ripley said.


Ripley's study of successful education systems from abroad has left her convinced of three strategies that could and should be imported to the U.S.:

First, raise the bar for entrance into college programs for teachers, "making the training very serious from the beginning."

Next, put more emphasis on rigorous work in U.S. schools, emphasizing quality over quantity in school assignments.

And last, improve educational equity — targeting more money and better resources toward the lowest performing and most disadvantaged kids.

"But, it's easier to say than to do," she said.

EMAIL: cbaker@desnews.com

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