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By Emily Kingsland

Earlier this month, the Center for International Education Benchmarking introduced a new feature on its web site.  The Study Guide is intended to provide readers with a weekly summary of headlines from the top-performing education systems in the world.  This month’s International Reads highlights some of the most important current issues in the news.

Liz Sandals New Education MinisterTeachers.  In Japan, changes to teachers’ retirement packages have caused many teachers to think about retiring early before the changes go into effect.  Japan education officials are struggling to figure out a work-around to ensure that students are not left without a teacher for the remainder of the school year, according to The Mainichi.  A Valentine’s Day strike was held by educators in Victoria, Australia in protest of the pay package offered by the state—a modest 2.5 percent a year plus performance-based pay.  The Australian Education Union is demanding a 12 percent raise over three years with no performance-based pay.  But on the issue of improving the quality of the pool entering teaching, the teacher’s union and the government are on the same side—recently, Education Union federal president Angelo Gavrielatos issued a statement supporting the government’s initiative to raise the quality of students entering the teaching profession.  In Ontario, newly elected Education Minister Liz Sandals is facing teacher dissatisfaction.  Last fall, legislation was passed banning teacher strikes in the province.  In January, the new law was used to impose a contract on public secondary school teachers.  In response, teacher unions have asked their members to refrain from supervising extracurricular activities, which they see as outside their regular duties.  Sandals said her first order of business is to ensure that new teacher contracts are the result of negotiation, not legislation.

Japan PreschoolEarly Childhood Education.  In Japan, government officials are considering offering free pre-school to children ages 3-5, in an effort to ease the financial burden on families, according to Inside Japan.  This proposal comes at the same time that President Obama called for free pre-school for all 4-year-olds at or below 200 percent of the poverty line in the United States during his State of the Union address.  Parents in Hong Kong are focused on another concern — that kindergartens are emphasizing grades and tests too much.  In response, they are leading a movement to shift to kindergartens that emphasize learning through play, according to the South China Morning Post.  And in New Zealand, the Pasifika Education Plan 2013-17 aims to lift Pasifika participation in early childhood education from its current rate of 86.8 percent to 98 percent by 2016, according to Radio New Zealand International.

Post-secondary Education.  A February 3rd editorial in the Japan Times calls for major changes in the country’s university entrance exam system, arguing that the current assessments measure knowledge acquired rather than deeper comprehension, aptitude and potential.  Meanwhile, researchers at the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIE) say educational inequality is getting worse, despite the increased number of publicly funded university places.  A recent HKIE study found that students from wealthy families are nearly four times more likely to enroll in a university than those living in poverty.  That’s a much wider gap than 20 years ago.  The Netherlands is looking to the liberal arts model to solve some of their higher education challenges related to a lack of differentiation and excellence.  Inside Higher Ed reports liberal art schools (known there as university colleges), “have had an outsized impact on Dutch higher education policies and practices, inspiring the growing movement toward selective admissions and the development of ‘excellence’ programs within a famously egalitarian higher education system.”

New Zealand Charter SchoolsChoice and Charters.  The Education Amendment Bill, introduced last year in New Zealand, would create legal recognition of charter schools there.  However, the Treasury has found evidence that school systems using strongly competitive elements do not produce systematically better student outcomes and other critics are arguing that charter schools will take public money but be free from government scrutiny.  While charter schools are not prevalent in Canada, school competition does exist in the form of four separate publicly funded systems catering to the English and French non-religious and Catholic constituencies of Ontario.  With birth rates in that province on the decline, schools are struggling to keep enrollment levels high. But the schools don’t just compete for students in name only: recently, schools have taken to touting their extracurricular programs in advertisements in local media and attending other schools’ open houses in order to gain an edge.  For more on this story, see the article in The Globe and Mail.

International Benchmarking.  And finally, Shanghai is looking forward to the December publication of the 2012 PISA results to show the world that, once again, they are on top of the international education league tables.  According to Shanghai education officials interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald, “tests recently conducted for the next PISA report…will show Shanghai students have further improved their results and consolidated their lead in the world.”  In the same article, Deputy Director of the OECD Education Division Andreas Schleicher says, “Maybe it’s time to change some of our stereotypes.  What you see today in the school system in Shanghai is what you are going to see in the labour market tomorrow.”  Learn more about the results from the most recent TIMMS and PIRLS international assessments by clicking here.

Check back to our web site on a weekly basis for more education news from the top-performing education systems in the world.