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The European Edge in Education: What the United States Can Learn

July 16, 2009 // 10:00am12:00pm
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Education systems differ widely amongst industrialized countries. Factors such as curriculum standards, teacher education methods, accountability measures, funding choices, and governance significantly affect the educational quality and equity of learning outcomes in schools around the world. In recent years, many countries have surpassed the United States both in educational performance and equality of outcomes, especially in the fields of math and science. On July 16, 2009, the STAGE program hosted three international education experts to discuss the main characteristics of education systems in Europe and elsewhere around the world. They explained how U.S. policymakers and educators could use the experiences of other successful countries to strengthen American schools. The event was followed by a session on Capitol Hill and both panels were made possible by a generous grant from the Petrie Foundation.

Andreas Schleicher, the head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Directorate for Education, started the discussion by explaining the pace of change in educational achievement globally. In 1995, the United States had by far the highest portion of its population graduating from college in comparison to other countries. However, over the past ten years many countries, including Australia, Sweden and Norway, have caught up and surpassed us in achieving much higher college graduation rates, especially in the areas of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (STEM). The rapid improvement in access to education and college graduation rates in other nations has significantly contributed to the expanding global talent pool.

Shifting to K-12 education, Schleicher emphasized how much we can learn from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which the OECD conducts and analyzes every three years. The 2006 PISA survey assessed the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 57 countries, covering 87 percent of the world economy. While the scores of U.S. students have remained almost stagnant on the last few assessments, other countries have surpassed us in achievement. In 2006, 28 countries, including 20 in Europe, ranked above the United States in science performance.

Beyond demonstrating where countries fall in relation to one another, PISA also explores the relationship between educational quality and equality. According to Schleicher, the results show that "it is quite possible to achieve high learning outcomes, and equitable performance, with a good value for the money". An example of this combination is Finland, which is a top performer and has one of the most equitable systems, with only 5 percent variability in performance between schools. In contrast, the United States system has failed to deliver equity, as socioeconomic background remains the main determinant of academic achievement.

An interesting component of the PISA data is the analysis of school spending in relation to performance. Educational spending does have an affect on performance, though it only accounts for 20 percent of the variability between countries, Schleicher explained. The United States spends the most per student on education, but performs worse than many countries that spend significantly less, including Finland and Korea. As Schleicher explained, this difference can be accounted for by looking at how countries spend their money. U.S. funding goes primarily to lowering class sizes, while Korea, for example, has sacrificed small classes and invested most in teachers, giving them higher salaries and creating a good working environment with professional development opportunities and ample time for instruction and planning. Schleicher explained that, while small classes are always beneficial, policymakers must choose from a variety of policy options and investing in teachers is more cost-effective.

Schleicher then outlined the main characteristics of high-performing school systems. The countries with the best scores on the PISA all have clearly defined and challenging universal standards, along with individual school autonomy. This approach is emulated in most European systems, which have centralized standards or "goals" for how students should perform in each grade level, but give schools discretion with their curriculum, budget, organization, hiring, and teaching decisions. The United States, on the other hand, lacks universal standards and also has a much lower degree of local control than other countries, leading to both widespread variability in student learning outcomes and lower performance.

Top-performing countries also succeed in attracting great teachers to the profession, in providing them with a supportive working environment, and in holding teachers accountable through various methods beyond student test scores.

William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University (MSU) and former executive director of the U.S. National Center that oversaw U.S. participation in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), explained what the United States needs to do to improve student performance and to achieve greater equity within the school system. He agreed with Schleicher on the importance of funding and governance decisions, and then added three of other crucial contributors to student performance that the United States should examine: the curriculum, the teachers, and the involvement of the parents.

Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. curriculum lacks focus, rigor, and coherence. Most countries cover about three mathematical topics within a specific grade level, in contrast to the United States, which covers about twenty. Widely known as "a mile wide and an inch deep," this failure of the curriculum to focus on any one topic in depth leads to redundancy and a lack of rigor, creating what Schmidt refers to as a "curriculum wasteland." While most eighth-graders around the world are learning algebra and geometry in their math classes, U.S. students are still learning fractions and arithmetic.

Furthermore, the curriculum taught in the U.S. lacks coherence. In any discipline, and especially in mathematics (where U.S. students perform the worst), the sequence of topics taught should be consistent with the structure of the discipline. No two states, Schmidt explained, agree on where any single math topic should fall in the grade-level sequence. Since each year fails to build on the previous one in a manner consistent with the discipline, students develop a disconnected understanding of mathematics, a major impediment to higher performance.

The lack of universal curriculum standards also contributes to widespread inequity within the U.S. education system. Schmidt described our system as highly unethical, as it serves to exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the effects of social class. The rigor of the curriculum within a district is tied to the socioeconomic background of the student, so low-income students are doubly disadvantaged. "Our system is stacked against the very students that need schooling the most," expressed Schmidt.

He emphasized that the best way to improve the education system is to set universal standards. These standards should take the form of clearly defined goals that establish what students should know at each grade level, while states and districts should still have the autonomy to create curricula and organize their schools around these standards. Such a system would ensure that every student, regardless of socioeconomic background or geographic location, would go a school that is held to high standards and would be taught from a curriculum that pushes them to achieve. With a set of universal standards, U.S. students would begin to see coherent, focused, and rigorous curricula in their schools, with textbooks and trained teachers to match.

Indeed, teacher preparation is another area in need of reform. An international study on teacher training in mathematics conducted by MSU with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) demonstrated that future U.S. teachers, in comparison to their Taiwanese and German counterparts, lacked knowledge in advanced mathematics and mathematical pedagogy. A broader study, called the Teacher Education Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M), will shed more light on these comparisons. Examining teacher preparation in twenty countries, the study is now underway through MSU and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and is set to be released early next year.

Schmidt also discussed the importance of parental engagement in education. While most parents report that mathematics education and education generally are important, only about one-fourth of them feel that they understand enough about the school system to advocate for their child. This number was reported to be even less – just 8 percent – for low-income parents.

The final speaker was Iris C. Rotberg, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University and the Editor of Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform. Like the other two speakers, she emphasized the fact that socioeconomic background is a large factor in a student's success. However, she contended that other forms of economic and social reform will be necessary to solve the problem – we must address the underlying societal problems causing poverty. Although other countries have developed education systems that have lessened the effects of socioeconomic background on performance, all are still struggling to close the achievement gap. For example, large inflows of immigrants into European countries are challenging the ability of their school systems to deliver adequate education and achieve equitable performance.

Rotberg also warned that international assessment comparisons, which guide a lot of our rhetoric in relation to education reform, could distract us from focusing on the main problem, which is not that our students perform lower than other countries, but that societal issues such as inequality linger.

Optimistically, according to Schleicher's analysis, it is possible to create an equitable and high-performing school system. Over the span of several assessment years, many countries have rapidly increased performance as a result of reforms. Schmidt pointed out that progress has also been made in some parts of the United States. On the most recent TIMSS survey, students from Minnesota vastly out-scored the average U.S. student, performing just below the top achieving students from other countries. Schmidt suggested this success may be due to reforms passed after the state received the results of the TIMSS study twelve years prior: the state worked to strengthen its set of standards and teachers began to develop their curriculum around those of high-performing countries. These tangible results demonstrate that real reform is possible. Borrowing from the experiences of Minnesota and successful education systems in countries around the world, the United States can work to ensure an equitable and rigorous education for all its students.

Drafted by Julia Smearman, STAGE Program
Kent H. Hughes, Director, STAGE Program

 

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