Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

2220-363X (online)
2220-3621 (print)
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This series examines how education systems are handling the challenge of preparing their students for a world of interconnected populations, rapid technological change, and instantaneous availability of vast amounts of information. Reports present examples from other countries with consistently high-performing education systems or countries that, by redesigning policies and practices, have been able to improve their education outcomes, as measured by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the world’s most comprehensive and rigorous survey of students’ skills and attitudes towards learning.

Lessons from PISA for the United States

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17 May 2011
9789264096660 (PDF) ;9789264096653(print)

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US President Obama has launched one of the world’s most ambitious education reform agendas. Under the heading “Race to the Top”, this agenda encourages US states to adopt internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace: recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals; build data systems that measure student success; and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices and turn around their lowest-performing schools.

But what does the “top” look like internationally? How have the countries at the top managed to achieve sustained high performance or to significantly improve their performance? The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) provides the world’s most extensive and rigorous set of international surveys assessing the knowledge and skills of secondary school students. This volume combines an analysis of PISA with a description of the policies and practices of those education systems that are close to the top or advancing rapidly, in order to offer insights for policy from their reform trajectories.

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  • Foreword
    United States President Barack Obama has launched one of the world’s most ambitious education reform agendas. Entitled "Race to the Top", the agenda encourages US states to adopt internationally benchmarked standards and assessments as a framework within which they can prepare students for success in college and the workplace; recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals; build data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and turn around their lowestperforming schools.
  • Introduction
    Globalisation and modernisation are rapidly posing new and demanding challenges to individuals and societies alike. Increasingly diverse and interconnected populations, rapid technological change in the workplace and in everyday life, and the instantaneous availability of vast amounts of information are just a few of the factors contributing to these new demands. In this globalised world, people compete for jobs not just locally but internationally. The integrated worldwide labour market means that highly-paid workers in wealthier countries are competing directly with people with much the same skills but who demand less compensation in lower-wage countries. The same is true for people with low skills. The competition among countries now revolves around human capital and the comparative advantage in knowledge.
  • Viewing Education in the United States Through the Prism of PISA
    This chapter examines the United States’ performance in PISA compared with high-performing and rapidly improving education systems and other international benchmarks. This serves as the backdrop for the examination of other education systems in Chapters 3 through 9, which look at the trajectories of education policies and practices in the benchmark systems. The concluding chapter of this report then draws some possible lessons for the United States from both the comparative data and the education policies of the countries portrayed in this report.
  • Ontario, Canada: Reform to Support High Achievement in a Diverse Context
    Since 2000, Canada has become a world leader in its sustained strategy of professionally-driven reform of its education system. Not only do its students perform well, they perform well despite their socio-economic status, first language or whether they are native Canadians or recent immigrants. Canada has achieved success within a highly federated system, which features significant diversity, particularly with respect to issues of language and country of origin. This chapter takes an in-depth look at Canada’s success, taking the case study of the nation’s largest province, Ontario. It shows how consistent application of centrally-driven pressure for higher results, combined with extensive capacity building and a climate of relative trust and mutual respect, have enabled the Ontario system to achieve progress on key indicators, while maintaining labour peace and morale throughout the system.
  • Shanghai and Hong Kong: Two Distinct Examples of Education Reform in China
    China has made huge strides in educating its population. During the Cultural Revolution, educated people, including teachers, were sent to rural areas to work in the fields. The teaching force was effectively destroyed. But, not three decades later, parts of the country – notably Shanghai – are among the contenders for top spots on the world’s education league tables. Hong Kong reverted back to China in 1997 and has also made significant reforms to its education system. This chapter looks at how China has made rapid progress, taking Shanghai and Hong Kong as examples of innovation. The main lessons include the government’s abandonment of a system built around "key schools" for a small elite and its development of a more inclusive system in which all students are expected to perform at high levels; greatly raising teacher pay and upgrading teacher standards and teacher education; reducing the emphasis on rote learning and increasing the emphasis on deep understanding, the ability to apply knowledge to solving new problems and the ability to think creatively. All of these are reflected in deep reforms to the curriculum and examinations. These changes have been accompanied by greater curricular choice for students and more latitude for local authorities to decide on examination content, which in turn is loosening the constraints on curriculum and instruction.
  • Finland: Slow and Steady Reformfor Consistently High Results
    Finland is one of the world’s leaders in the academic performance of its secondary school students, a position it has held for the past decade. This top performance is also remarkably consistent across schools. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background, socio-economic status or ability. This chapter looks at the possible factors behind this success, which include political consensus to educate all children together in a common school system; an expectation that all children can achieve at high levels, regardless of family background or regional circumstance; single-minded pursuit of teaching excellence; collective school responsibility for learners who are struggling; modest financial resources that are tightly focused on the classroom and a climate of trust between educators and the community.
  • Japan: A Story of Sustained Excellence
    Japan has been at or near the top of the international rankings on education surveys since those surveys began. This chapter explores how Japan may have achieved this consistent standing and what other countries might be able to learn from the Japanese experience. The Japanese education system is grounded in a deep commitment to children that is concrete and enduring. The research also attributes Japan’s success to a first-rate teaching force, superb family support for Japanese students at home, the way resources are focused on instruction and the strong incentives the system provides for students to take tough courses and study hard in school. The school curriculum in Japan appears very coherent, carefully centred on core topics, with a clear goal of fostering deep conceptual understanding. The academic programme follows a logical sequence and is set at a very high level of cognitive challenge. Though it is applied nationwide, Japanese teachers have a remarkable level of autonomy in its application. The entire approach is aided by the shared belief that effort and not ability is what primarily explains student achievement. There is no tracking in Japanese schools, classes are heterogeneous and no student is held back or promoted on account of ability. The system has a great deal of inherent accountability – to one’s parents, one’s peers and so on. While entrance exams are deeply important for progression to Japanese higher education, the system of teacher accountability in schools is interestingly not based on student assessments. These, and many other factors, have combined to produce one of the world’s besteducated and most productive workforces.
  • Singapore: Rapid Improvement Followed by Strong Performance
    Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories, transforming itself from a developing country to a modern industrial economy in one generation. During the last decade, Singapore’s education system has remained consistently at or near the top of most major world education ranking systems. This chapter examines how this "tiny red dot" on the map has achieved and sustained so much, so quickly. From Singapore’s beginning, education has been seen as central to building both the economy and the nation. The objective was to serve as the engine of human capital to drive economic growth. The ability of the government to successfully match supply with demand of education and skills is a major source of Singapore’s competitive advantage. Other elements in its success include a clear vision and belief in the centrality of education for students and the nation; persistent political leadership and alignment between policy and practice; a focus on building teacher and leadership capacity to deliver reforms at the school level; ambitious standards and assessments; and a culture of continuous improvement and future orientation that benchmarks educational practices against the best in the world.
  • Brazil: Encouraging Lessons from a Large Federal System
    Brazil has come a long way from its colonial days where education of the local population had not been a priority. This chapter describes how modern Brazil has extended public basic education to over 95% of the population; established assessment systems using an internationally benchmarked index that measures the progress of each school against a baseline; created student-based funding formulas that distribute funds fairly within states; used conditional cash transfers to lift poor families out of poverty through education; and encouraged states and municipalities to take actions to improve education in individual schools. Brazil has enjoyed 15 years of economic and political stability that has enabled it to develop a range of solid industries that now export to the world. Consumption is up among its citizens and this continues to fuel the Brazilian economy. Average PISA scores for Brazil have improved in all subjects measured over the last ten years. While these scores are well below the OECD average and obviously do not place Brazil among the high-performing countries, such gains do suggest that Brazil has put in place federal policies based on a coherent vision that appear to be generating some consistent improvements. The challenge now is to raise the level of education of its citizens high enough to enable them to take commerce and industry to competitive levels in a global marketplace.
  • Germany: Once Weak International Standing Prompts Strong Nationwide Reforms for Rapid Improvement
    For many years, the German public and policy makers assumed that Germany had one of the world’s most effective, fair and efficient school systems. It was not until 2000 that they discovered this not to be the case at all, and that in fact Germany’s schools ranked below the average when compared to the PISA-participating countries. Now, ten years into the 21st century, Germany has substantially improved its position in the PISA league tables. This chapter explains how Germany could have so misjudged the relative quality of its education system, how it could have fallen so far from where it had been generations before, what it did to reverse its unfavourable position, and what other nations might learn from this experience. It identifies the main factors behind Germany’s strong recovery as being the changes it has made to the structure of its secondary schools; the high quality of its teachers; the value of its dual system, which helps develop workplace skills in children before they leave school; and its development of common standards and curricula and the assessment and research capacity to monitor them.
  • Vignettes on Education Reforms: England and Poland

    This chapter provides brief vignettes describing some specific education reforms in three countries – England and Poland:

    • In England the government responded to a teacher shortage with a successful campaign to attract more potential teachers. The success of the English strategy rests on its two-pronged approach which combines a clever advertising campaign with a substantial package of financial relief. The government has now met its recruitment targets.

    • Since 2000, reforms in Poland have made impressive gains in the quality of its secondary education. There were three elements to the reforms: i) increasing secondary and higher education qualifications in the population; ii) ensuring equal educational opportunities; and iii) improving the quality of education. Poland’s PISA scores now show that the variance between schools in student performance in reading, mathematics, and science has been significantly reduced.

  • Lessons for the United States

    United States President Barack Obama has launched one of the world’s most ambitious education reform agendas. The federally-funded programme "Race to the Top", initiated in 2010, represents the cornerstone of this agenda and encourages states in the United States to change their aspirations and organisational culture by: adopting internationally benchmarked state-developed standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace; recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals; building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and turning around the country’s lowest-performing schools.

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