A world apart: how are other countries able to close the achievement gap and produce such high-achieving students?

Author:Bell, Julie Davis

Why is it that American kids trail so many others around the world in math, science and reading? What do those countries do that we don't? We need to know.

Amanda Ripley, author of "The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way," sought answers to these questions by following three American students who attend schools in high-achieving countries for one year. Kim, a 15-year-old from Oklahoma, moves to Finland, using the $10,000 she raised for the adventure; Eric, an 18-year-old from a high-achieving Minnesota suburban high school, chooses a big city in South Korea; and Tom, who is 17, leaves his small town in Pennsylvania for a small village in Poland.

Through the experiences of these students, Ripley discovers changes in these countries--none of which had high-achieving students a few decades ago--that appear to be making the difference.

In Finland, the emphasis is on excellent teachers, one high-stakes exam at the end of high-school, a fair distribution of educational resources and flexibility in the school day for play and sports.

In South Korea, successful changes include high standards, high-stakes tests and a significant increase in parental involvement.

And in Poland, a mixture of well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum, a challenging exam to graduate and a focus on academics only--sports are not part of the school day--are making the difference.

Interest in what the United States can learn from other countries has grown over the last 20 years as American scores on international tests have stalled while other countries have passed us by.

Some people believe these international comparisons are invalid. The U.S. is more economically diverse than other countries and its complex system of educational governance is shared among the federal, state and local levels. They aren't comparable, they argue.

Others say that looking at what these countries are doing is too intriguing to ignore and worth exploring. That's why NCSL's Study Group on International Education embarked on an intensive 18-month examination of educational systems in some of the world's highest performing countries.

The bipartisan group of legislators and legislative staff, along with several private-sector partners, met with education leaders and national and international experts to learn which policies and practices were working in these countries and what lessons the states might learn from their successes.

This article is based largely on the group's first report, "No Time to Waste: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State."

First, the Test

The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is the test used to compare the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students around the world. It's administered every three years and rotates among reading, math and science.

In the first PISA study of 32 countries in 2000, the U.S. placed 15th in reading, 19th in math and 14th in science.

Things got worse in 2012. The test included less-developed countries because of advances they were making, and of 65 countries, American students ranked 24th in reading, 36th in math and 28th in science.


"These comparisons also hold even when controlling for poverty, homogeneity and size," says Andreas Schleicher, the chief statistician and researcher overseeing PISA.

Most of these countries are doing better than the United States while also spending less. Except for Norway, Luxembourg and Switzerland, no other country spends as much per student than the U.S. does each year, which, in 2012, was around $10,500. With less money, these high-achieving countries have not only greatly improved their student test scores, they have also closed achievement gaps among certain populations.

PISA isn't the only test out there. The U.S. also pays attention to the "Nation's Report Card," or the National Assessment of Education Progress, administered periodically to students across the country. But its results are no different. For four decades, this assessment has shown little improvement in the reading and math scores of American high school students.

Stagnant Since the 1970s

Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has spent his career studying education and economic reform in countries and states. He says educational growth in the U.S. stopped in the 1970s.

"Our school system took its current shape a hundred years ago, when most workers needed only basic literacy," he says. "Now, though, the jobs available in the industrialized countries to people who have only basic literacy are drying up fast, some going to developing countries and the rest going to robots and other intelligent machines that can do the work faster, more accurately and at lower cost. The majority of our high school graduates are prepared for the jobs that are disappearing, not the jobs that will be available. Those jobs will require much more education and much higher technical skills."

It's not necessarily due to a lack of effort. Individual reforms have focused on increasing school competitiveness through charters and vouchers, reducing class sizes, improving technology and toughening teacher accountability systems. Still, student test scores remain stagnant.

Principles From Abroad

So, what makes for successful education systems in the top-performing countries? Members of the legislative study group observed that all focused on teaching and teachers, high standards with limited but strategic tests...

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