Six founders of NCEE’s Superintendents Alliance make the case for proficiency based education. Read more.

A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation (ASCD, 2012)

Vivien Stewart is a mistress of deception.  In A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, she distills a lifetime of astute observation into a slim volume so skillfully written—so easy to read—that the reader is hardly aware of the subtlety of the analysis it contains.  Commissioned by ASCD, an American association of educators, it compares the achievements of a selection of top-performing countries with their American counterparts.  But the book should be no less interesting to educators in other countries seeking to improve their performance, wherever they stand on the international league tables, whatever their position in their country’s education system.

Full disclosure:  Stewart is an old friend and colleague, a member of the Board of Trustees of the organization I head and a member, too, of the International Advisory Board of our Center on International Education Benchmarking, sponsor of Tucker’s Lens.

Books of this sort written by educators and educational researchers tend to focus almost exclusively on education policy and practice narrowly conceived.  But Stewart has done development work in Africa, served with the United Nations and witnessed first hand the rise of Asia over the last couple of decades.  She is very perceptive about education policy and practice, but she has a wider perspective.

Perhaps because that is so, this reader had a sense of history while reading this book that I have not encountered from other books of the same sort.  Stewart paints a picture of profound change—of the sort seen only once in a century, if that—in the education systems of countries all over the globe as they respond to the equally fundamental changes in the global economy.  We see how China, with an education system totally devastated by Mao Tse-Tung, its schools and universities closed, its educators fired and sent to do manual labor in the countryside, determines to telescope a development process that usually takes forty or fifty years, to do whatever it will take to become a front-rank education power on the global stage—and succeeds!  We see how Singapore, on a small island with no resources other than its strategic position astride the route between two giant oceans, with no school system to speak of, riven by ethnic rivalry, despised by its much larger neighbors and poor as a church mouse, nonetheless uses education and job training as the spearhead of its strategy for vaulting into the top ranks of the industrial nations.  And then there is Finland, which, after World War II was a sleepy agricultural nation whose education system lagged far behind that of its much larger neighbors, so used to being in the shadow of Sweden that it was astonished to learn that their country, having ignored the conventional education reform wisdom of its betters for years, had beaten every other European nation in the first PISA rankings and has maintained that position ever since.

What comes through is a story in each case of fierce national determination, a kind of educational hunger that, in each case, transcended political rivalries and was not to be denied.  In each case, we see an absolute conviction, starting at the top and fully shared by the entire polity, that education and high skills hold the key to economic success.  But we also see a moral commitment to shared prosperity, a belief that the key to shared prosperity is a genuinely high level of education for the entire population, and a determination to make sure, as a practical matter, that the policies needed to provide every child with a high quality education are implemented well and implemented in detail.

The point I am making here has to do with the way we read books of this sort.  Both the writers and the readers tend to ask and answer the question: What policies and practices account for the success of the top-performers?  That is a good question and this book does a first rate job of answering it.  What that question misses, however, is another question, which is: What does it take for a country that is not in the front ranks to join those ranks?  The answer to that question does not consist entirely of the answer to the first question.  What comes through clearly in this book is another set of answers having to do with political leadership of the kind that galvanizes action and creates the kind of broad new consensus that is required to uproot long-established arrangements and relationships.  What comes through is the crucial role that international education benchmarking plays in creating for a country a new vision of what might be possible and the confidence among many players that is required to take a chance on abandoning a system with which many players are very comfortable.  What comes through is the need for continuity and stability of political leadership.

It is, I think, no accident that we see in Singapore, Shanghai and Japan (until recently) different versions of one-party rule and in Finland a country in which consensus across party lines is necessary before great actions can be taken on any important issue.  In the case of Ontario Province, in Canada, another of the examples we are shown by Stewart, all the reported progress took place under the leadership of one Premier, who placed education reform at the epicenter of his political agenda.  Whether it was one-party rule, cross-party consensus or the extended leadership of one elected official, what all these cases have in common is political continuity that has lasted long enough to enact and implement major changes in the nature of the entire education system.

In all of these cases, the political leaders involved took the time to mobilize broad public support for their education agendas.  In almost every case, they made their case on the wings of a perceived existential economic threat, or, in the case of the developing countries, an enormous economic opportunity.  Importantly, even in the case of one-party rule, the profound changes in education system design that Stewart reports on were not shoved down the throats of any of these countries.  Stewart shows us how each of these countries, cities and provinces decided on their programs of reform only after making mighty efforts over a long period of time to gain wide input from their professional educators and the public at large.  In every case, professional educators were partners in the reform effort, not the opposition to be overcome in a hostile takeover.

What are we to make of this?  Should we conclude that the countries most likely to lead the next era of education reform are those with one-party rule or consensus-style politics?  If you believe, as I do, that only those countries can achieve the highest incomes, then that would be tantamount to saying that, with the exception of those countries sitting on unusual concentrations of natural resources, the richest countries in the world will be those with one-party rule or consensus-style politics.

The record, I think, shows that it will be harder, but by no means impossible, for countries with rough-and-tumble multiparty politics to scale this ladder.  Those terms would describe Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and, yes, even Ontario, where the Premier who turned things around just began his third four-year term of office.  All are among the world’s top performers.

But none of us should think that following in the footsteps of those countries that now lead the world’s league tables of student achievement is going to be simply a technical matter best left to professional educators.  It simply won’t happen without very effective and often courageous, far sighted political leadership.  Stewart points out that, although the origins of the trajectories that have enabled the leading countries to get where they are began 20 or 30 years ago, their histories show that most were able to make substantial progress in five to ten years, in some cases even less.  In the political world, some progress is needed to get permission to go the next step and major progress is needed to forestall those who want to turn the clock back.  Stewart’s book gives us enough examples showing how political leaders have beat the odds in this way to give heart to those who are flirting with similar commitments in countries in which they can expect rough going.

The toughest case is probably the United States.  For structural reasons that will not be easily changed, the United States is now in the grip of a politics so poisoned as to make consensus on almost any important matter impossible.  In an effort to find agreement in the field of education, the political parties in my country have joined forces around an agenda for education reform that flouts virtually ever principle that informs the successful education strategies of the top-performing countries.

But the United States has been counted out many times in the past, only to succeed in the end.  Though neither presidential candidate has talked much about education in the current campaign, because both are hobbled by their own constituencies in this arena, the public, in one poll after another, has said they believe education to be one of the most important issues facing the country.  There are signs in many quarters that many who have championed either the status quo or radical efforts to destroy the system from the outside are now interested in alternatives.  The United States may be more ready than many believe to adopt the broad agenda Vivien Stewart lays out in this book.

Whether that is true or not, the logic of the book’s underlying story is very powerful.  The future belongs to those countries that display vision and leadership, embrace ambitious standards, commit to broad equity, do everything possible to get and keep high quality teachers, build a system that is both aligned and coherent, set up effective management and accountability systems, motivate their students and adopt a global and future orientation.  We’ll just have to see which countries embrace that message and which do not.