International Reads: News from the Top-Performing Education Systems

Each week, the CIEB staff survey the education news from the world’s top performing systems.  We post a round-up of the most important topics every Friday morning on the CIEB homepage.  Here are the issues that matter most in global education news this month:

Education Equity

The issue of educational equity is one that is important to policymakers in all top-performing nations, but the situation in China is unique.  Shanghai has one of the best education systems in the world, but it is an anomaly in a country that is also characterized by a sprawling rural populace without many of the benefits of Shanghai’s system.  As recently as a few years ago in China, not all children had access to nine years of compulsory education, though that changed at the end of 2011.  China’s government has been working to redress this gap, and an article at China.org quotes Chinese Education Minister Yuan Guiren as saying that “[China has] made a lot of progress in improving fairness in education in recent years … My dream is to ensure that we can … provide education for all people without discrimination and cultivate every person in this nation to become a talent.”  A great deal of their policy and financial focus has been directed towards poor, minority, female and rural students over the past five years.

ChinaOrgDespite Shanghai’s great strengths in education, policymakers and educators are concerned there, too, with a different equity issue.  Unlike in the rest of China, where female students may have less access to education than male students, in Shanghai, female students are outperforming male students fairly significantly.  In 2008, girls made up more than 60 percent of the top scorers on the gaokao, China’s university entrance examination, up from about 34 percent in 1999.  As a response to this dramatic shift in performance, The Japan Times reports that some Shanghai schools have created classes for boys only, hoping learning in a single-gender environment will help to boost male students’ confidence and improve their performance.

In China’s Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, there is concern over the equity of the education provided to students from ethnic minorities.  In that region, almost all schools are required to teach all of their classes in Cantonese; this requirement has been in place since 1997.  The New York Times reports that this policy has been detrimental to students who do not speak Cantonese fluently.  As a response, the government has opened “designated schools” in which classes are taught in English and the student body is 95 percent ethnic minority.  However, many feel that the students attending these schools are at a disadvantage due to their separation (both physically and linguistically) from mainstream society.

Education Funding

Following the release of the Review of Funding for Schooling (better known as the “Gonski Report”) in Australia last year, both the federal government and the states have been working to reach agreement on what school funding will look like going forward.  The report proposed a uniform system of funding schools across Australia, with a base funding amount augmented by a school-specific “loading” to address economic, cognitive and physical disadvantages among the student body.  However, the premier of the state of Victoria has rejected this plan, preferring instead to propose his own system.  The Age has the full story.  Other states, too, have rejected the Gonski proposals.  In Queensland, the Education Minister has announced that they will be developing their own funding plan, while Tasmania has emerged as the first state with a Labor government (the same party that is in power in the federal government) to reject the government’s plans.

Nearby in New Zealand, a recently released study from the New Zealand Council for Educational Research found that, according to a survey of the country’s principals, secondary schools are often struggling financially.  Principals reported budgetary deficits, with a majority stating that their finances were worse in 2012 than they were the previous year.  However, the Ministry of Education rejected the report’s findings, with a staffer contending, “schools are adequately funded to deliver the curriculum so that all students are able to learn and achieve.”  Read more at the Otago Times.

China, meanwhile, has been working to increase funding for schooling as part of their overarching strategy to improve the system and create both greater equity and improved student performance.  An article on Xinhuanet reports that China has been increasing education spending since 2009, with an investment totaling nearly US$5 billion over the past four years.  Four percent of GDP is about the same, proportionally, as what the OECD countries spend on average on education each year; top performing systems such as Australia, Finland and the Netherlands also spend about 4% of their GDP on education. 4-Traders reports that the government plans to increase education spending by 9.3% in 2013 and to focus on educating rural students.

Student Pressure

JukuMost of the top-performing East Asian education systems are known for the the extensive hours students spend studying outside of class, often to prepare for university entrance exams.  The Japan Times reports that students in that country are attending cram schools, or juku, earlier than ever before.  Whereas in the past students began attending juku in their teenage years, now it is becoming increasingly common among elementary and even preschool students.  However, there does seem to be a degree of ambivalence on the part of parents: while many feel that they should not have to pay for private tutoring in addition to regular schooling, they often turn to juku in order to ensure that their children are not falling behind their peers.

In China, by contrast, aware that immense pressure on students is often not conducive to a student’s health, many provinces are making strides in changing the culture of “cram.”  Beijing, in particular, is leading the pack in developing policies focused on reducing student stress in an education system where tests are a central element of schooling.   The Global Times reports that after March 19, primary schools in that city will face limitations on testing and homework, and secondary schools will be prohibited from ranking students based on exam scores.  However, the article also reports that parents are not necessarily on board with these changes.  One parent pointed out that as long as the gaokao, China’s university entrance exam, dominates a student’s academic prospects, the system is unlikely to change. The Shanghai Daily has also recently covered the tension between the government efforts to relax education in the primary grades and parents’ concerns about their children’s futures, while Xinhuanet reports that China will be launching a national campaign to ease stress and move towards more comprehensive evaluations of student performance.

Teacher Quality

Both Australia and the Netherlands have produced new policy plans for improving the quality of their teaching forces in the past month.  In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science released Working in Education 2012, a policy document that calls for turning schools into professional organizations where teachers would have access to attractive career paths.  The government’s recommendations for improving teacher quality, to be introduced by 2016, include developing a competency document for each teacher that describes their skills and the activities designed to maintain and improve them, implementing a peer review system for teachers, and introducing performance-related pay pilots.

In Australia, both the state and federal governments are concerned with the issue of teacher quality.  In New South Wales, the Education Minister has announced that there will be a new minimum entry standard for teacher education programs.  The Australian reports that teacher candidates would need scores of at least 80 percent in three subjects on the high school leaving exams, including in English.  Another component of the new quality measures is an introduction of a literacy and numeracy test that teacher candidates must pass while they are completing their degree.  The federal government has also announced plans to require literacy and numeracy tests and an assessment interview for students entering teaching programs.  The Education Minister of New South Wales has stated that his state’s plan does not conflict with the federal plan, but would hold teacher candidates to a higher standard than the federal plan.

ECEEarly Childhood Education

In Singapore and Shanghai, the government and parents are increasingly focused on early childhood education (ECE).  Singapore plans to spend more than US$2.4 billion on preschool education in the next five years, which doubles their current investment, writes Channel News Asia.  In Shanghai, parents are so eager to enroll their students in early childhood programs that some have begun signing their children up for these programs on the day they are born.  According to the Global Times, however, this demand for preschool has created a boom in the private ECE sector.  This has led to concerns about the quality of the teaching staff and the programs offered, and calls for improved government oversight.