International Education Reform

The Economist of 17 September 2011 has a detailed three-page story about “the great schools revolution” resulting from “a global battle of ideas.” This has resulted from new masses of comparative data, such as the PISA tests developed by the OECD and first used in 32 countries in 2000, and McKinsey consulting group’s new education research practice, which assesses which school systems improve the most over the years. And computers and the internet seem to have finally reached the point where they could actually make a difference in schools (this hasn’t been true in the past; despite spending a lot of money to put computers in schools, going back to the 1970s in the U.S. when schools bought Apple II computers, there’s been no evidence to date that computers improve learning).

The Economist story also says that “the three great excuses” for bad schools are no longer accepted. They are skimpy government spending, social class, and cultures that don’t value education. The article acknowledges the research suggesting that social class plays a big role in school outcomes, but argues that schools can still make a difference, particularly if the culture emphasizes education (with a reference to Asian cultures, where even poor children study hard and do well on tests).

Then the article identifies four important themes that work to improve schools: decentralization, a focus on underachieving students, providing a choice of different types of schools (they mention charters as the U.S. example), and high standards for teachers. They then provide examples of schools that a recent McKinsey report has identified as high performers: Ontario, Poland, and Saxony (in Germany). The most important are the last two: providing a variety of schools (The Economist‘s economic liberalism leads them to advocate “schools free of government control,” no surprise) and enhancing teacher quality. Is the U.S. ready to double teacher salaries and then grant them autonomy and professional discretion, as is done in Singapore for example? Unfortunately, U.S. schools aren’t going down that path.

4 thoughts on “International Education Reform

  1. Paying mediocre teachers more won’t solve our problems. Teacher salaries should be linked to how much their students improve. We already have all of the necessary data to link student and teacher performance. Unions have made it impossible for us to utilize this data. We can make teaching more attractive to top talent by making pay more meritocratic- paying good teachers a lot more and bad teachers less (or maybe firing them once in a while).

    If you’re really interested in understanding US education on a deeper level, I’d highly recommend reading “Special Interests…” by Terry Moe.

    1. Teacher salaries are substantially higher in countries with internationally competitive education systems. But the reason is that when you have strong salaries and high social status for teachers, the top high school students choose to enter education programs, and the top college students choose to major in education (instead of law, medicine, b-school, etc. And no, I’m not kidding, this actually happens in those countries, and teachers are actually paid comparable to or more than medical doctors). So their teacher workforce has a very different profile from the U.S.’s current teacher workforce. So I agree with you in part: paying our existing teachers more money wouldn’t improve education immediately, the effects would be indirect and long-term, as the next generation’s best and brightest gradually make the career decision to become teachers. So, you might ask, why not simply raise the salaries for the new hires and keep existing teachers at the same salary level? It could work to attract the brightest new teachers, but imagine the resentment that would result from the new hires making more money than the experienced senior teachers. So there’s no easy way to get there from here, sadly.

    1. Have you seen yesterday’s cover article in the Sunday New York Times? It’s about a private Waldorf school in Silicon Valley, with the children of many tech titans and billionaires, and the school does not allow computers or cell phones at all. The title is “A Silicon Valley school that doesn’t compute.” I’m going to do a blog post on it right now.

      *Matt Richtel, “A Silicon Valley school that does’t compute” New York Times Sunday Oct 23 2011 p. A1, A19

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