More Helpful International Comparisons

  • 25 January, 2011

Just before the holidays, I wrote about the misuse of international comparisons. I decried the notion that we should emulate Finland’s educational approach, though I covet their educational outcomes. My point was that the Finnish context differs too much from that of the U.S. for us to successfully follow such advice, and that, frankly, people are cherry-picking the features of other countries that they like best. So, if you don’t like accountability testing, find a country that is doing better than us but that isn’t testing much. While that may be rhetorically powerful it isn’t very helpful for reforming schools.

  Since I published that piece, I have come across two recent reports that provide a wonderful counterpoint to what I complained about. Two independent groups examined the recent international comparison data (Finland is no longer first in reading by the way), and they tried to identify patterns that are consistent across the high achievers or high gainers. These reports are interesting and useful because what they identify are patterns that transcend the situational differences.

  How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better was produced by McKinsey & Co., a London-based think tank, and the other report, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States produced the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The reports differ methodologically, but they both tried to make sense of patterns across countries, rather than highlighting their favorite variables.

  One thing they agreed upon was that what it takes to raise achievement is probably not the same at all points of development. It might, for example, make sense to spend a lot of time adopting a common curriculum and agreed upon standards early in the improvement process, but if you keep futzing with that and don’t get to the implementation issues (like teacher and principal quality or parent support), you probably won’t succeed, standards or none. Accountability efforts seem to matter early (to get things moving), but their importance appears to wane as the reform takes hold.

  These reports also agreed that there were different ways to solve problems, and that the value of particular choices of strategies would be determined partly by culture and local circumstances, and partly where you were in the school reform process. How do you get instruction of a common core to all students? In some cases, adopting a prescriptive curriculum and scripted materials might be an effective strategy. A lot of my colleagues hate that idea, but with highly transient teachers, poor teacher preparation, and poor supervision, such approaches have been successful in a world context. In other cases, increased professional development might be a better way to accomplish the same goal. (In the U.S., Reading First invested heavily in the professional development of inner city teachers… and yet, within two years, more than half of these teachers had moved on. You can’t raise achievement through professional development if you can’t retain the teachers).

  These reports aren’t easily compared, but it is clear that they agree on one especially important point: success is possible.

  Both reports document countries that recently weren’t doing so well in education—Korea, Finland, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, but that have succeeded in making things excellent for their children (and in passing the U.S.). In fact, the OECD report stresses the belief that success is possible as a critical dimension of success: you can’t make things better wringing your hands and bemoaning all the reasons that you can’t succeed. They also agree that a focus on improving the quality of teaching is needed (through better recruitment, teacher preparation programs, professional development, efforts to raise teacher status, reward systems for teachers, improved principal preparation and support, and focused attention on the quality implementation of effective teaching practices).

How the Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better


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More Helpful International Comparisons


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.