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Posted at 9:56 AM ET, 11/ 2/2010

What other countries are really doing in education

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, part of the Whole Child Initiative at ASCD, an educational leadership organization.

By Sean Slade
Are we moving forward or chasing our own tail?

As the education reform debate continues – and is fueled by educational documentaries, educational forums and manifestos - let’s take a moment to look at what these countries that we are propping up on a pedestal actually do.

For a while now we have been told that the United States is falling behind and that we must catch-up. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last Aug. 25:

Today, there are many different approaches to strengthening the teaching profession -- both here in America and in countries that are outperforming us such as Finland and Singapore.

Our competitors in other parts of the world recognize that the roles of teachers are changing. Today, they are expected to prepare knowledge workers, not factory workers, and to help every child succeed, not just the [ones who are] easy to teach.

If this is our goal then – to catch up with the rest of world - how do we get there? A logical step would be to at least look closely at educational underpinnings of the countries most commonly cited - Singapore, Finland and Canada - and replicate.

Let’s take a quick look at what these countries are actually doing:

SINGAPORE
Prime Minister Lee of Singapore (Aug. 29, 2010):

"I think we should do more to nurture the whole child, develop their physical robustness, enhance their creativity, shape their personal and cultural and social identity, so that they are fit, they are confident, they are imaginative and they know who they are.

"Every child is different, every child has his own interests, his own academic inclinations and aptitudes and our aim should be to provide him with a good education that suits him, one which enables him to achieve his potential and build on his strengths and talents. Talent means talent in many dimensions, not just academic talent but in arts, in music, in sports, in creative activities, in physical activities.

"We need to pay more attention to PE, to arts and music and get teachers who are qualified to teach PE and art and music.

"Give each one a tailored and holistic upbringing, so you get academic education, moral education, physical education, art and a sense of belonging and identity. We aim to build a mountain range with many tall peaks but with a high base, not just a single pinnacle where everybody is trying to scramble up one single peak. And we are realizing this vision."


FINLAND
Timo Lankinen, Director-General, Finnish National Board of Education (Sept. 13, 2010):

"We are not actually talking a lot about numeracy or literacy, the agenda for change is more about increase of the arts and physical education into curriculum, and the highlight of 21st century skills or as we call them citizen skills.

"We have relatively small class sizes so there is the possibility to individualize that attention for each children (sic) ability to personalize ... but we have questions to ask ourselves, do we enable teachers and students to flourish enough, for example giving them individual aspirations, and engaging students so that there will be more experiential learning.

"Looking at basic education and success in PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] results, we have to bear in mind that children also participate in early childhood education ... which is mainly through play and interaction.

"We will be great when every student and stakeholder says for example ‘I love school’ and ‘I’m doing well in school’ – so it’s not only the subject knowledge we are seeking after."

CANADA
Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario, Canada, Sept. 13, 2010:

"It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, it doesn’t matter how much you want change -- you won’t get results unless you enlist your teachers in the cause of better education.

"We have worked hard to build a positive, working relationship with our teachers. We do not engage in inflammatory rhetoric. We do not use our teachers as a political punching bag. Public bickering undermines public confidence.

"Policy development and implementation happen in dialogue with our education partners.

"We don’t always agree, but I am reminded of some of the best political advice I ever received. I got it from my mother, on my wedding day, she said: 'Whatever happens, keep talking.'

"So we keep talking to our teachers. I make it clear to them, and all our education partners, that our pursuit of improvement will be relentless. And there is no place to hide."

To summarize:

*More emphasis on the whole child, physical education, the arts, fostering talents and citizen skills.

*Less emphasis on numeracy and literacy or testing

*Greater respect for teachers, the profession and their role as partners in educational reform.

I wonder if these people would be interested in putting together a manifesto?

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 2, 2010; 9:56 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Sean Slade  | Tags:  arne duncan, education finland, education singapore, finland, finland schools, finland teachers, singapore, teachers  
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Comments

I am kind of torn on this argument. Everything that those three people from Finland, Canada, and Singapore are saying are completely and totally true. We as a country are saying we want to compete wit them, but that's all it is, a bunch of talk. Somebody needs to stand up and actually enact some change. Until then, nothing will get done and we'll be sitting here listening to how great every other country is.

Posted by: fangmane1 | November 2, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Interesting to start out with a quote from Singapore that begins with the words "I think we should..." that doesn't point to what they're actually doing.

When it comes to respect for teachers, how did they get to that point and who do they respect?

Posted by: delray | November 2, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

"We have worked hard to build a positive, working relationship with our teachers. We do not engage in inflammatory rhetoric. We do not use our teachers as a political punching bag. Public bickering undermines public confidence.

Policy development and implementation happen in dialogue with our education partners."

It would be a huge start to just try the above approach. Instead we are doing the opposite here. Imagine! Actually engaging the very people who are expected to enact reform! What a novel approach!

Posted by: musiclady | November 2, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Finland, Singapore and Canada all cite that focusing on the child as a whole, including physical education and arts is what is making their schools successful. This is EXACTLY what is lacking in American schools. Once America develops better physical education programs and stops relying on standardized test as much as they do, then we can start to compete. Until then, these countries and many others will continue to overshadow us.

Posted by: kgericke | November 2, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

It appears as if the educational reform practices of the past ten years are inconsistent with the stated vision of the administration. Or perhaps the Secretaries of Education under the past and current administration have truly not listen to or investigated what other successful countries are actually doing. Nor have they taken a look at educational practices that appear to be working well in their own country. Instead they are charging forward with policy and practice that research has shown does not work. They do not advocate for the education of the whole child, rather they focus on basic skills they can test to show measurable, short term gains in achievement - both student and teacher. The question begs - why all the rhetoric claiming the desire to emulate the practices of other successful countries? Unfortunately, data evidence that our educational reform efforts are seriously deformed.

Posted by: highquality4kids | November 2, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

As the Cheshire cat told Alice, "…which way…depends on where you want to go" In President Obama's speech of November 2009 he mentioned the educational way as leading to the goals of national prosperity, international competition, earnings, jobs, a quality future, success, a knowledge economy, and eliminating the cost of achievement gaps. I would suggest that these are secondary goals, and even as secondary goals there are many important omissions such as the joy of learning, excitement of discovery, creative adventures, and just the contentment of knowing. We need a primary educational goal that is simple, engenders common agreement, and encompasses all secondary goals. In this regard, the best expression I have heard is that trite but powerful phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Posted by: bpeterson1931 | November 2, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Left out here:

Finland has a limited of merit pay. All teachers in a school get a bonus (and often a vacation trip) if kids do well on standardized testing.

Also, Singapore and Finland recruit top talent into the teaching ranks (the US, on the other than, recruits nearly half of its teachers from the bottom third of college graduates) In Finland, only ten percent of applicants are accepted into education schools, compared to nearly 100 percent in the US. The income gap between teachers and other professionals is not nearly as glaring as it is in the US.

These are random quotes thrown together but they do not tell the entire story about the approach these countries take towards education.

Posted by: trace1 | November 2, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I am not sure I understand the point of this article. Most reasonable people would agree that the United States Education system needs reform. Also, I think most reasonable people would probably agree that Singapore, Canada, and Finland are currently getting better results from their education systems. That is a great starting point for a scientific analysis of what those countries are actually doing and what the United States could learn from them. Instead, the article is based around three “important“ (yet random) individual’s theories about what they believe are the important qualities within their education systems. There is no reason to assume these people are able spokespersons (Timo Lankinen has the most credibility) for their education systems. After all these institutions are something each of these countries have spent decades building up. If we are serious about reform let’s do an objective examination of what they are actually doing, what their exact results are, and then whether we can transfer that here and get a similar outcome. Theory is fine but it is ultimately subjective, let the results speak for themselves.

Posted by: Nkuedu | November 2, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Sean Slade, for providing these global perspectives; they're an antidote for a decided narrowness in what passes for education reform at this moment in the U.S.

For those who are interested in how we might implement whole child education, in addition to the resources at the ASCD website, may I recommend another site that just went up last week:

www.educatethewholechild.org

Posted by: ChrisNye1 | November 2, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

The problem with these types of comparisons is that most people miss the elephant in the room. It doesn't matter how much the teachers get paid or how many bonuses they get (see the SINGAPORE system); it doesn't matter how long the school year is for them (see the FINNISH system); it doesn't matter what curriculum they use (see the FINNISH system); and it doesn't matter if there is high-stakes testing in elementary schools (see the FINNISH system). What does matter in all cases is something that we never talk about. And that something is culture and the American ethos. We simply do not value teachers or education as much as they are valued in other countries. Part of the problem lies in our sense of the individual and the other in our capitalistic or media hungry behavior. However we look at the problem, the single most determining factor that pops up in all of these countries is how they value education. No matter what gimmicks we try, whether it is a longer school year, or value-added testing for teacher accountability, or rigid curriculum, we will always be travelling in the caboose of the world's educational system because of the great American educational ethos.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 2, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

DHume1:

You're right. THe US just doesn't value education or teaching as a profession, so the most talented college students go into OTHER professions. And the cycle of "no respect" continues. When I, as a parent, sat across from some of these public school teachers at a parent/teacher conference, it was hard to have the utmost respect when too many of them just did not seem that capable in their subjects.

How to break the cycle? That's the question. We have to figure out a way to attract and retain top talent. Respect will follow naturally.

Posted by: trace1 | November 2, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

When looking for blogs to potentially respond to, this post immediately stood out to me because of how often we hear how much more successful other countries are when it comes to education, leaving many of those educated in America falling far behind the increasingly competitive standards of today's society. Indeed, I found it particularly interesting that the approaches countries such as Singapore, Finland, and Canada are taking -- which have all been proven to be effective -- are almost antithetical to the system currently in place in the United States, a system that emphasizes numeracy and literacy as well as frequent assessments. As someone whose philosophy of education is firmly rooted in progressivism, reading about how other countries are working on developing "the whole child" (as the Prime Minister of Singapore put it) through programs involving arts education (which has been de-emphasized in many schools across America due to the fact that it is not assessed as frequently) and are still getting excellent results serves as an excellent reinforcement of what I personally believe is the ultimate goal of education.

In addition, I found Canada's approach to actually involving teachers in policy development to be particularly interesting; to me, it seems like a lot of the education reforms taking place in America are being enforced by people who have had relatively little experience in an actual classroom setting, which I believe causes a sort of disconnect between what should work in theory and what can actually be implemented successfully in a classroom. Indeed, after reading this post it is clear that a more active involvement of teachers is just one of many techniques that the American educational system could learn from other countries -- but I believe that in order to do so we as a country need to get over many of our beliefs about what is "essential" in order to allow our children to be genuinely successful.

Posted by: AndrewBoehmker | November 2, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Of course Singapore and Finland can afford to pay more attention to PE and music and the arts. They already lead the world in mathematics, science, reading, and history. They can afford to expand into other areas.

But American schools can't even manage to teach kids how to read properly, let alone calculate or understand science. So we are looking at problems that those countries have solved.

Posted by: sbgoldrick | November 2, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Trace1,

(the US, on the other than, recruits nearly half of its teachers from the bottom third of college graduates

Some proof, please?

In addition, a lot of good people come out of the bottom third of college graduates.

Oh by the way, I was one of the top. But because I became a teacher does that automatically mean I was in the bottom third although I wasn't?

Cut the crap out and grow up.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 2, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

trace 1,

I worked in business for almost 30 years, and I have worked in education also.

Your statement "You're right. THe US just doesn't value education or teaching as a profession, so the most talented college students go into OTHER professions" is nothing but a blantant lie.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 2, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

trace1,

I understand your brutal desire to denigrate teachers. But if you are going to beat teachers up and act so holy and self righteous - at least start telling the truth.

Or least admit that you want to brutalize teachers for your own benefit. I'm sure you are not as holy and righteous as you make yourself out to be.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 2, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

"But American schools can't even manage to teach kids how to read properly, let alone calculate or understand science. So we are looking at problems that those countries have solved."

That's not quite right. The only problems in reading comes out of the economically poor areas of the country - not the middle class or wealthy areas. The children in these schools learn to read quite well.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 2, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree with this article. We have some of the worst schools in the United States and that needs to change. I am an education major and knowing what teachers do and deal with on a daily basis makes me respect them and my future profession even more. I think that teachers need more respect in society. I feel like we are looked down upon and seen as babysitters. This is not true. My roommate has been to Ireland and she said that teachers over there are respected as much, if not more than doctors and lawyers. I also hate that schools are taking away the arts and physical education. These aspects of education are extremely important. They help with creativity and also let kids blow off some steam. We expect young children to sit in a classroom for 8 hours and have no outlet for extra energy they have. Then that leads to them being diagnosed with ADHD when they don't even have it. That really irritates me. I am not a huge fan of testing. I think we should have some, but not to the extent that some teachers use tests. I think that our students need to experience life and also figure out that learning can be fun, if you put your mind to it. We also need to get rid of stereotypes that society has thrust upon the next generation. It makes me upset, especially what has happened to those children who took their lives because of bullying about their sexual orientation. The education system overall needs an overhaul.

Posted by: ceninneman | November 2, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

"Most reasonable people would agree that the United States Education system needs reform."

The problem with this statement is that most schools in the US are educating their students well. Being in education, I know that the problem lies in the economically depressed areas of the country.

I disagree with your statement based on my experience in education.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 2, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

"We have some of the worst schools in the United States and that needs to change."

Are you aware that England is also having the same problems with education and schools that the US? The poorer economic areas of the country have schools with more disruptive students, which stifles learning.

If the US really wanted to fix education in the poorer areas of the country - they would focus on behavioral intervention.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 2, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

@jlp19

"Oh by the way, I was one of the top. But because I became a teacher does that automatically mean I was in the bottom third although I wasn't?"

With an argument like this you've proven that you don't understand the simplest of statistic statements, and you've implied that most teachers are far worse.

It's less and less of a mystery why I had students who couldn't multiply by ten.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 2, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Trace1,

The real question is what type of "talent" are you talking about. There's talent and then there's the academically successful. They are sometimes the same, but they are not always the same. And when people equate one with the other--as I have seen in a recent Time article--then they completely bastardize what teaching is all about.

One of my favorite history teachers of all time did not have a degree in history. He was a PE teacher who took the class at the last minute because the administration told him he had to. I do not know if he was in the top third of his graduating class, but based from the numerous spelling errors and his poor syntax construction, I would wager that he wasn't. Nevertheless, he was compassionate, and he engaged us in history. And in my perspective, he had the teaching "talent."

There is a lot hidden in that word "talent" that people often misunderstand.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 2, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

jlp19,

Wow, you're pretty hostile. No one disputes that nearly half of our teachers come from the bottom third of college grads. That's a big problem in the US, where the teaching profession was essentially subsidized by gender discrimination for years. Finland attracts top talent. We don't. That is not to say that some very talented people go into teaching. But not enough.

If you don't want to hear me, maybe you'll listed to a former teachers union president?


"The late Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1997 to 2004, was open about the problem as far back as 2003. "You have in the schools right now, among the teachers who are going to be retiring, very smart people," she said in an interview. "We're not getting in now the same kinds of people. It's disastrous. We've been saying for years now that we're attracting from the bottom third."

From Washington Post, Oct. 10, 2010.

Oh, and take a look at the very recent Mckinsey study for more stats on where our teachers are coming from. (That is, if you are interested in facts.)

http://www.mckinsey.com/App_Media/Reports/SSO/Worlds_School_Systems_Final.pdf

Posted by: trace1 | November 2, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

jlp19 says "most schools in the US are educating their children well."

Say what?

"The average science score of U.S. students lagged behind those in 16 of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that represents the world's richest countries. The U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/04/AR2007120400730.html

I'm glad you're not worried, jlp19. I wish I could say the same about American CEOs who are alarmed that they cannot turn to American-educated students to build a tech-savvy, math literate, 21st century workforce.

Posted by: trace1 | November 2, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

jlp19 says "most schools in the US are educating their children well."

Say what?

"The average science score of U.S. students lagged behind those in 16 of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that represents the world's richest countries. The U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/04/AR2007120400730.html

I'm glad you're not worried, jlp19. I wish I could say the same about American CEOs who are alarmed that they cannot turn to American-educated students to build a tech-savvy, math literate, 21st century workforce.

Posted by: trace1 | November 2, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

This is everything we have been talking about in my Education classes. I'm in college preparing to be an educator and we talk about what is holding schools in America back. respect for teachers and lack of arts are common answers. If all three of these countries are beating us, then yes, we SHOULD copy their methods, end of story.

Posted by: hagedornd3 | November 3, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

@hagedornd3

What did "respect for teachers" and arts education look like in the 1960s?

Posted by: trace1 | November 3, 2010 6:30 AM | Report abuse

What education boils down to is the fact that we have to get to know our students on an individual basis and figure out what they know and how they learn in order to be most effective. We are not willing to change teaching styles for the new generations coming in, although we should be. The man from Finland in my opinion hit it right on the head when talking about engaging the students and individualize attention on each student. Until we get to know them and see how they act, how can we prepare them to become better in the real world? If we as educators do not know our students, are we as educators even prepared for the real world? Think about it.

Posted by: spauldingr2 | November 3, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

jlp19,

You're scaring other readers. Parents want teachers who (1) are decent people who don't curse either in the classroom or in a Washington Post comment thread, and (2) know their subject matter very, very well (including basic computation, statistical analysis, and logical argumentation). To many parents far too many teachers don't know what they're teaching. Many, though by no means all, are simply not very bright and are, therefore, unable to communicate anything of value to their students. These teachers make it hard for the well-prepared teachers to set standards and high expectations.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | November 3, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Why is this article titled "What other countries are really doing in education"?

At no point did you cite ANYTHING these countries are doing to succeed.

All you cited were what political figures SAY about education - which is generally worthless.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | November 3, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

To trace1: it's not just the lack of respect for teachers and low pay that keeps the best from going into teaching. The only people who go into teaching are those who had a good experience in school, and it is accepted that the very brightest students have unpleasant times in school--getting bullied for doing their homework, putting up with teachers who know less than they do, being told by teachers not to read certain books that were classified as for a higher grade or that were inappropriate, being bored in elementary school because they could read a page while a classmate stumbled through one sentence, being told to ignore factual errors in textbooks because the teacher didn't know any better, staying up late to finish an English paper only to find the class was cancelled to make room in the day for a football rally, etc. By the time they graduate, they cannot stand the thought of spending more time in the public schools.

I'm speaking from experience; the daughter of a teacher, and 4th in my high school class, all I wanted in school was to graduate so I could go to college.

But I don't know how to break the cycle.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 4, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I find this argument very true. If we want to compete with these leading educational countries, we need to change. We need to base education on the whole child as stated by Prime Minister Lee. We put way to much emphasis on standardized tests, which in the long run is not basing student’s education on the whole child, but what we choose as educators and our government chooses that these kids should learn and know. I agree with everything all three of these countries were talking about. If all three of these countries are ahead of us, then why haven't we looked into what they are doing? I believe we need to change and from the looks of it; these three countries would be a nice starting point to look at and base a reform off of. We need more emphasis on the arts and PE and less emphasis on standardized tests.

Posted by: smithr5 | November 8, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

It is nice to see some other countries' perspectives on the education system, I think it is important to have more emphasis on the whole child, physical education, the arts, fostering talents and citizen skills. Teachers need to get to know their students and teach them based on their needs and interests. The US education system needs to focus more on the students and worry less about standardized testing, but I am concerned that the US system does not know how to change to these more holistic approaches.

Posted by: kcurr0408 | November 8, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

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