International Reads: News from the Top-Performing Countries

This month we cover dropping enrollment in U.S. teacher education programs, education reforms in Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and Poland, the OECD’s recent look at VET systems and the ideal school size, and more.

Updates on Singapore’s VET reforms, teacher career management and special education

SingaporeClassroomSingapore’s new SkillsFuture Council, made up of representatives from government, labor, industry, and education, met this month and released details on its initial strategy. According to Council Chair Shanmugaratnam, the four “thrusts” of the council’s strategy will include: developing counseling systems in schools and the workplace to help individuals make informed choices at every stage of their education and career; ensuring that the education and workplace training systems are constantly evolving to meet workplace needs; allowing people to progress through school and work based on the mastery of industry-recognized skills; and fostering an industry culture that celebrates lifelong learning. Read more at Channel News Asia.

A Singapore official, Woon Chia Liu who is dean of teacher education at Singapore’s National Institute of Education, recently touted Singapore’s management of teacher training and employment at a conference in Sydney. Liu told the crowd that no Singaporean teacher is unemployed, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. In Singapore, beginning teachers are paid the same as beginning engineers and accountants and the system offers several career tracks culminating in master teacher or principal. “When things don’t go well, instead of blaming or bashing teachers, we look at providing resources to support them, providing personal development to increase their capacity and on top of that, as a society, the government makes a very conscious decision that teaching should be a valuable profession,” said Liu.

Singapore also started a pilot School to Work program for special education students. Educators, parents and job coaches from industry collaborate to identify the best job placement for these students and place them in training programs to prepare them for work. Currently, only 25 percent of special education graduates are employed successfully through vocational programs; the goal of this initiative is for all special education students to have a clear pathway to the workplace. Read more at The Straits Times.

Education Reforms in Taiwan

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education proposed instituting a third semester for both primary and secondary students in the summer. The summer semester would not count toward grades. Instead, struggling students would have the opportunity to take remedial courses without falling further behind, and advanced students could take enrichment classes that would not normally fit into their schedules. Read more at Taipei Times. In addition, Taipei City education officials and Taiwan’s Ministry of Education continue to debate the appropriate weight of Comprehensive Assessment Program scores in determining preference for enrollment in secondary school. The debates have continued ever since the Ministry rejected the city government’s proposed alternative plan last month. Taipei Times covers the details of the controversy here.

Explaining reform in Japan and Poland

Shinzo AbeJapan’s simultaneous embrace of nationalism and international expansion of its universities is generating ambiguous signals from its education policymakers. Both initiatives come as a result of the recent election of a conservative government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. On one hand the administration has tasked the education ministry with rewriting textbooks along what it calls “patriotic” lines—a move which has worried Japan’s Asian neighbors as well as the United States as the changes downplay Japan’s wartime aggressions. But at the same time, the government is pushing to promote Japanese universities as globalized and open, in a bid to compete internationally. Mr. Abe has stated that he wants 10 Japanese institutions to rank among the world’s top 100 universities. The government’s plans include strengthening teaching staffs at universities by hiring foreign professors, initiating an evaluation system and expanding resources. Read more at The New York Times.

In an interview with the Brookings Center for Universal Education, Zbigniew Marciniak, former Undersecretary of State in the Ministry of Education for Poland, said that public support for sending children to higher education to ensure their future employment was a key factor in dramatically improving student achievement since the 1990s. According to Marciniak, after Poland regained its independence from the Soviet Union, unemployment “became an official word—it was forbidden in the communist days—parents started to think what is the way to secure a future for my child?”

New analyses from OECD on vocational education, tertiary education funding, issues of school size and equity

OECD Skills ImageThe OECD released a new report on vocational education, Skills Beyond School: Synthesis Report, this month. The report aggregates data from twenty case studies of the vocational systems of OECD countries. According to the study, nearly one- third of jobs in the U.S. will require a postsecondary qualification by 2018, highlighting the importance of developing the vocational education sector. The report finds that while many countries, particularly Canada, Ireland, Austria, Germany, and Estonia, educate large proportions of their students in vocational education, the sector still suffers from stigma and from a “lacking brand image.” The authors recommend that countries improve data collection and establish more ongoing funding sources for vocational education.

The OECD’s most recent Education at a Glance report highlights dramatic differences in the way countries approach funding of tertiary education systems. Nordic nations tend to offer tuition-free higher education and have generous student support systems funded entirely by the state through high income taxes. These systems have higher than average participation and completion rates. Other nations, including the United States, have high tuition fees balanced with robust student support systems, including well developed student loan systems. These nations also have higher than average participation rates, except in times of economic crisis when higher tuition discourages students from entering post-secondary education. Read more about the OECD’s models of tertiary funding and the implications for student participation and completion at University World News.

OECD’s Education Today blog examined school size and equity this month. The OECD’s Education Today blog recently looked at the ideal size of a school. The post follows the publication of the OECD Education Working Paper “School Size Policies: A Literature Review.” Both the blog and the literature review suggest that there is no one right answer to the question of “how big should schools be?”; instead, there are a host of constraints that policymakers should consider, for example, larger schools may reduce spending on facilities, but also drive up transportation costs and promote social stratification among students. The OECD blog also examined a new set of rankings of social justice in European Union countries. These rankings take into account indicators for education, including dropout rates and the extent to which socioeconomic status is correlated with proficiency. In general, PISA top performers are highly ranked in social justice as well: Finland and Estonia lead the EU in both excellence and equity. The OECD concludes that in order to ensure excellence, countries should focus on strategies to promote equity, such as investing in the early years and providing additional supports, for their most needy students.

Dropping enrollment in U.S. teacher education, Australia tops Prosperity Index education ranking

TeacherNew data from the U.S. sees a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Major changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, and new accountability measures, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, fulfilling career in the United States. Nationwide, enrollments in university teacher-preparation programs have fallen by about 10 percent from 2004 to 2012, according to federal estimates from the U.S. Department of Education’s postsecondary data collection. Read more at Education Week.

The Legatum Prosperity Index for 2014 from the London-based Legatum Institute, ranks 142 countries according to eight criteria — economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom, and social capital. In the report’s overall rankings, Norway came out on top. The education sub-index measures countries’ performance in three areas: access to education, quality of education, and human capital. In these education specific rankings, Australia ranked first followed by Canada and Denmark. The U.S. ranked 11th on the education sub-index.