International Reads: News from the Top-Performing Education Systems

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Countries Respond to PISA 2012
NZstudenttestingThe top performing countries from the 2009 PISA release responded to the 2012 results, with some declining in the relative rankings and other countries solidifying their top performance.

Finland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada all saw their performance decline from three years ago.  Finland has dropped from its former position at the head of the pack.  Some argue that this drop is due not so much to Finland’s decrease as to the startling dominance of Asian nations.  In fact, Finnish supporters are quick to point out that Finland ranked best in Europe in both reading and science, and Finland was the only European country to rank in the top five for any category.  Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, on the other hand, blames Finland’s decline on complacency.  Sahlberg says “The unexpected position as a global educational leader and role model may have disturbed Finland’s previous commitment to continuous improvement and renewal. Some argue that complacency and focus on explaining the past to thousands of education tourists have shifted attention away from developing Finland’s own school system.”  Read more at Business Insider.

In New Zealand, 15-year-olds saw their overall PISA ranking fall across the board this year, dropping from 7th to 13th in reading, 13th to 23rd in mathematics, and 7th to 18th in science.  The New Zealand Initiative, an education think-tank and research institute, advises that the country’s sudden drop in the rankings signals that the country needs to lift teacher quality.  Underlying the data from New Zealand’s PISA performance is the worrying rise in underachievers and a growing gap between those students who are doing well and those who are not.  In an urgent debate in Parliament prompted by the PISA results, Education Minister Hekia Parata said better targeting of investment is needed, noting that a NZD$110 million (USD$82 million) investment in poorer schools had not improved results.  New Zealand was one of just two countries in which socio-economic status had a strong connection to a student’s performance.  Read more at Otago Daily Times.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne said that the answer to Australia’s sliding scores on the 2012 PISA is not a focus on funding but on reforms of curriculum, teacher quality and school discipline.  Pyne said that the previous Labour government “increased real spending on education by 10 percent and our scores declined.”  And in Canada, the country’s fall from the top ten ranking on math performance is worrying employers and raising concerns about new math curricula used in the country.  John Manley, CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, called the decline “a national emergency.”  The PISA results also called into question new math curricula put into place in Canada’s provinces, with some calling for a “return to the basics”.  Others pointed to Quebec, which scored much better than the rest of Canada in mathematics and suggested that this may be a result of a requirement for teachers to study math in teacher education programs.

US teenager’s scores were stagnant, stuck at average in reading and science, and below average in mathematics.  NCEE president Marc Tucker argues, “The current ‘education reform agenda’ is bankrupt.  There is no evidence that it can succeed.  It is time to embrace a very different education reform agenda, the one that has proven itself in the PISA rankings.”  American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten also condemns the current US reform agenda, “Sadly, our nation has ignored the lessons from the high-performing nations…  None of the top-tier countries, nor any of those that have made great leaps in student performance, like Poland and Germany, has a fixation on testing like the United States does.”  Along with dismal overall rankings for the US, the results also point to a disturbingly strong link between socio-economic status and performance for United States students; that link is not nearly as marked in top performing countries like Japan and Estonia.  Read more at Christian Science Monitor.

South Korea, meanwhile, came in near the top of the league tables once again in this year’s PISA results.  In mathematics, South Korea was the top ranking OECD country, coming in just behind non-OECD entities Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.  However, such high performance comes with a cost, especially for students and their parents.  BBC takes a look at the grueling study schedule of almost all Korean students, from early morning study to late-night private tutoring.  The Education Minister Nam Soo Suh said the government is trying to address the problem, “Korea has achieved miraculous growth within a short period of time…  We still have a long way to go but we are doing some soul-searching in our society, and our goals now are about how to make our people happier.”  Read more at BBC News.

Teacher Retention and Quality
Frustrated TeacherEurydice takes a look at how teachers’ salaries vary across the EU and whether salary has any role in teacher retention.  Their research found that while factors like salaries, work time and benefits certainly play a large role when it comes to attracting teachers and keeping them in their jobs, other less tangible factors are also at work, such as the increase in administration and bureaucracy within schools and the intensification of teacher evaluations.  Read more at Eurydice.

In Singapore, efforts are underway to make jobs in early education more professional and attractive given that 1 in 5 early childhood workers quit every year, according to Channel News Asia.  The Ministry is planning a system of incentives and recognition for pre-school teachers to close the gap between salaries and bonuses received by other professionals in the education sector. They also have proposed focused training in child development and management, providing educators with a clearer picture of the different career pathways available to them within pre-school and sharing best practices across classrooms.

In Australia, the Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne endorsed a new exam to assess the proficiency of aspiring teachers before they enter teacher education programs in Australia.  The new exam was proposed as a measure to ensure quality of the pool of aspiring teachers rather than ensuring quality by lengthening the training program.

Rating Schools
Japan and South Korea are looking at new ways of ranking education institutions.  According to an editorial in the Japan Times, the education ministry is considering granting municipal boards of education permission to publicize individual schools’ results on nationwide achievement tests for sixth and ninth graders.  Read the full editorial here.  Meanwhile, the Korean Education Ministry plans to introduce a new university and college rating system in anticipation of declining student numbers and growing financial difficulties at post-secondary institutions.  The new rating system ranks schools in five levels.  Schools in the top level will be allowed to reduce the number of new entrants however they choose, while schools ranked in any other tier will be forced to cut their admission quotas according to their ranking.  Schools in the bottom two tiers will be subjected to restrictions in government assistance for scholarships, research funds, and student loans.  Schools in the lowest tier will face closure if education quality does not improve.  Read more at the Korea Herald.

Thoughts on the Future of Education in Asia
KoreanHSStudentsIn a series of blog posts on the Huffington Post, Andreas Schleicher, special advisor on education policy at the OECD, profiles a school in rural China that is working hard to prepare its students to be active citizens in the local and global economies.  He writes, “This is a country where everyone is willing to learn: students are learning for a better life; teachers are learning to improve their teaching; schools compare themselves eagerly with other schools; and, perhaps most important, the system as a whole is willing and able to learn. Whether China is interested in designing a better sewer system, retirement system or school system, it sends key people from the relevant sector to visit the world’s best performers in those areas with instructions to find out how it’s done and to put together a design for China that is superior to anything seen anywhere else.”

The Economist examines the history of South Korea’s education fever.  South Korean parents spend an enormous amount of money to prepare their children for the suneung, a competitive daylong university entrance exam.  According to the article, education accounted for nearly 12 percent of consumer spending last year.  To combat the social pressure to attend higher education, the former president Lee Myung-bak tried to “raise the prestige of vocational education and break the grip of universities on the minds of South Korea parents, 93 percent of whom expect their children to go to college.” The Economist also interviews Seo Nam-soo, South Korea’s education minister, on parents’ fixation with using all means necessary to help their children score at the top of these exams.