International Reads: News from the Top-Performing Countries

In this month’s edition of International Reads, we take a look at recent studies and international reports; op-eds promoting international education benchmarking; recent developments in education reform in Taiwan and China; and innovations in vocational education in Singapore, Germany, and Ontario.

Recent International Reports and Analysis

The U.N. Development Program released its latest Global Human Development Index in Tokyo.  The index combines measures of health, education and standard of living in an effort to paint a broader picture of development than economic numbers alone.  Japan has slipped down one place, from 16th overall to 17th, while South Korea moved up to tie with Hong Kong for 15th.   Japan’s drop is due mostly to lower scores on the education index, particularly for expected years of schooling: the number of years of schooling a child can expect to receive given current enrollment rates.  The U.S. ranked 5th overall this year, but when adjusted for inequality the U.S. ranking dropped to 28th – consistent with the most recent PISA exam results which show a high correlation between low socioeconomic status and low performance on the exam.  Read more at the Wall Street Journal.

WEF_GlobalCompetitivenessReportAccording to the 2014-2015 Global Competitiveness Report released by the World Economic Forum, the health of the global economy is at risk, despite years of bold monetary policy, as countries struggle to implement structural reforms necessary to help economies grow.  According to the index, the United States has improved its competitiveness position for the second consecutive year, climbing two places to third based on gains to its institutional framework and innovation scores. Switzerland has scored the top ranking for the sixth consecutive year, Singapore remains second and Finland (4th) and Germany (5th) both dropped one place from last year’s rankings.  Read more about the report here.

The OECD has released a new PISA in Focus Brief: When is Competition Between Schools Beneficial?  The brief examines the impact of competition between schools on student performance.  It notes that reforms in many countries have tried to give parents a greater choice of schools for their children, with the belief that competition would create incentives for schools to raise the quality of the education they provide.  However, the report concludes that the latest PISA results show that, on average across countries, school competition is not related to better mathematics performance among students.  It is, however, related to greater socioeconomic segregation among students.  For more, see the full report.

A recent analysis by Pew Research Center examines instructional time and compares U.S. classrooms to classrooms in other countries.  According to data from the OECD, among 33 mostly developed nations, annual “total intended instructional time” averaged 790 hours for primary students and 925 hours for middle school students.  To calculate U.S. averages, Pew used data from the Education Commission of the States, and found an average 943 instructional hours for U.S. first graders and 1,016 hours for U.S. 7th graders – placing the United States near the top of both lists.  It’s a complicated comparison to make for a number of reasons.  For example, in the United States, each state sets its own standards for minimal instructional time while in other countries such standards are typically set at the national level.  Read the full piece here.

Making the Case for International Education Benchmarking

EmptydesksSeveral pieces came out in the past month that lend support to the practice of international education benchmarking.  For example, USA Today makes the case that we should look to Poland’s transformation into a world leader in education as we try to reform our own system. The article describes the structural changes in the system that required all students to stay in comprehensive schooling for longer, and also put a new emphasis on foreign language.  The strength of the system, the article notes, is not due to high spending, with Poland’s per pupil cost about one-third of the average cost in the U.S.  The article notes some issues in continuing progress, including low teacher pay and a lack of professional development and also an exodus of students leaving the country to study abroad who may or may not return.  Read the full article at USA Today or see CIEB’s coverage of Poland’s reforms here.

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), Elizabeth Green, editor-in-chief of the education news organization Chalkbeat, compares teacher training in the United States to that in Japan, pointing out that many of the most effective practices in Japan actually originated in the United States but never caught on here.  Green points out that many Americans think good teachers are born, not trained, but in Japan teaching is treated as a complex craft that must be honed through years of collaboration and practice.  This requires giving teachers the resources and especially the time to develop their skills and collaborate with others.  Click here to read an interview with Elizabeth Green at USA Today, or read a review of the book at The Australian.

In an interview with AERA’s Lead the Change Series, Canadian education researcher Carol Campbell highlights research-based reform strategies in Ontario.  She is writing a case study of the Ontario experience to inform recommendations for systems and governments to use research more effectively in improving schools.  Her recommendations are focused in six areas: leading, applying, building capacity, networking, communicating and contributing.  She points to Ontario’s substantial improvements in literacy and numeracy and the graduation rate over the past decade, but also notes areas that still need work, including achievement of the aboriginal population and lagging progress in mathematics.  For the full interview, see AERA.

Recent Reforms in China

ChildPovertyJapanRecently, the OECD announced that a wider range of Chinese regions will participate in PISA, including Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong, according to the BBC.  Andreas Schleicher of the OECD is quoted in the story as saying, “China’s participation in PISA 2015 will be conducted in full accordance with PISA sampling procedures and standards of international comparability.” During the last round of PISA, Shanghai was at the top of the league tables, but there were complaints that the city was not representative of schools in other parts of China. For more on the debate about China’s participation in PISA see CIEB’s coverage.

Chinese education officials have also released a new plan to reform the national university entrance exam in order to give students more control over the process, according to the South China Morning Post.  The reforms call for university admissions to rely less on the results of the two-day national exam, known as the gaokao, and more on standardized tests that students take during their high school career.  Currently, the national test is comprised of tests for Chinese, English and mathematics and a broader fourth test that covers subjects related to either social science or science depending on the stream the student is entering.  The ministry is calling for the fourth test to be dropped by 2020 so that the rest of the gaokao score will be determined by performance on high school exams that are either required by university admissions or chosen by students.  Read more about the reforms here.

New Education Minister Tackles Policy Change in Taiwan

Wu Se-hwa, the President of Chengshi University, was recently appointed Taiwan’s Minister of Education.  The Executive Yuan, the Taiwanese executive branch offices, expressed hopes that Wu’s career in administration and business management would allow him to successfully carry out current initiatives to link the Taiwanese education and business sectors.  The position had been filled on a temporary basis since the resignation of the previous minister in June.  Read Focus Taiwan’s coverage here.

Wu Se-hwaThis transition takes place in the midst of controversial changes for Taiwan’s education system. Taiwan’s new 12-year basic education program is now being implemented throughout the country.  The reform makes attendance in upper secondary school mandatory for all students, extending compulsory education from 9 to 12 years.   Following weeks of heated debate about the logistics of high school entrance exams in the new 12-year compulsory education program, the new Minister and several mayors reached a tentative agreement. Students’ high school placement will be determined by performance on a standardized test only in schools where demand exceeds the number of available seats.  Certain specialized schools may require additional specialty tests for their applicants.  The mayor of Taipei City, who had voiced strong opposition to compulsory education reforms in the past, indicated that he would support these reforms, as they would streamline the process for parents and students.  Read China Post’s coverage here.

Worldwide Innovations in Vocational Education and Training

Recently, the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Committee released 10 recommendations to improve Singapore’s polytechnics and technical education system.  The government accepted all 10 recommendations which include: coordinating and improving education and career guidance systems, strengthening workplace partnerships, articulating specific skill frameworks and career pathways, and expanding apprenticeship and continuing education opportunities.  The Committee’s report is the product of focus groups and interviews with over 17,000 students, 3,000 parents, and 400 school staff, as well as benchmarking visits to Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Australia.  For more on the recommendations, see Channel News Asia’s report. In the same week, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivered remarks in which he applauded Singapore’s focus on career and technical education, and pushed back on criticisms that they may lower standards.

Across the globe, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities announced that agreements have been signed by all 45 publically assisted colleges and universities to ensure that their programs are linked to the economic needs of local and global employers and that the programs are coordinated across the province.  This means that the province will not duplicate programs that already exist and will periodically survey programs to ensure that the range of economic needs in the province are met.  For more, see the Ministry press release.

SingaporeVETGermany recently announced a new skills initiative created by the German Embassy that aims to bring the German model of career and technical education to the United States.  Germany’s dual system of education and training combines a few days a week of classroom instruction at vocational schools with on-the-job apprenticeships that are designed to lead to full-time employment after graduation.  About 30 companies and 30 community and private colleges are participating in the initiative across California, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and D.C.  Many of the participating companies are German-owned. Read the full story at the Hechinger Report here.