International Comparisons to American Education

As the world shrinks and becomes much more interconnected, it is only natural that nations would compare their educational programs and successes with one another. Learning from others is and excellent way to discover new ways of improving. If someone else has created an effective approach, others can learn from it. The most talked about comparisons of educational attainment come in the form of international assessments. One thing that is not talked about is how much these tests predict future success for both the individual and the society. The predictability, reliability and validity of these international assessments, like standardized test used to measure student and teacher growth, are much more limited than the public supposes, yet we take them as accurate and trustworthy indicators of learning, and by extension, progress and success.

Putting those major concerns aside for the present, let’s look at how the United States compares to other nations, to see what we might learn. Scores on international tests for the U.S. are in the average range for all nations that participate. The scores for the United State were up slightly in the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA); however, what made the news was how poorly U.S. students performed compared to other nations. The common perception conveyed in the media is that the United States was once the world’s leader in these international comparisons and has now fallen behind. This is not true. The first international assessment in 1964 ranked the U.S. as second to last out of 12 nations. There has been a slight but general trend of improvement in U.S. scores on these tests since 1964 (Loveless, 2011, p. 9).

The result of the latest PISA ranked Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China, Finland, Singapore and South Korea as the top scorers. Among the nations in the original 12 tested in 1964, Finland was ranked fourth, but in 2009, it was ranked first among them. It has become regarded as a model the United States should look to for improving our education system. Many of Finland’s policies and approaches are contrary to what is being proposed as reforms in the U.S. For example, Finland distributes educational resources much more equitably, pays higher teachers’ salaries, gives teachers greater authority and autonomy and has no high-stakes standardized tests (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

Sahlberg gives some other differences.

A typical feature of teaching and learning in Finland is high confidence in teachers and principals as respected professionals. Another involves encouraging teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches rather than teaching them to master fixed attainment targets. This makes school a creative and inspiring place for students and teachers. These policies are a result of three decades of systematic, mostly intentional development that has created a culture of diversity, trust and respect within Finnish society in general, and within its education system in particular. The result is a cocktail of good ideas from other countries and smart practices from the tradition of teaching and learning in Finland.

The secret of education in Finland is that it brings together government policy, professional involvement and public engagement around an inspiring social and educational vision of equity, prosperity and creativity in a world of greater inclusiveness, security and humanity (2011).

America should thoughtfully consider some of these alternative approaches, especially when they are making policies that are contrary to them.

 Some of these uniquely American solutions — charter schools, private school vouchers, entrepreneurial innovations, grade-by-grade testing, diminished teachers’ unions, and basing teachers’ pay on how their students do on standardized tests — may be appealing on their surface. To many in the financial community, these market-inspired reform ideas are very appealing.

 Yet, these proposed solutions are nowhere to be found in the arsenal of strategies used by the top-performing nations. And almost everything these countries are doing to redesign their education systems, we’re not doing. (Tucker, 2011)

Let’s take a closer look at we are doing and what they are doing that is different. These are broad generalizations and need to be explored more closely. The first relates to accountability and respect. It seems the more autonomy, professional responsibility and respect teachers are given, the better the results. The trend in the U.S. is in the opposite direction. As trust breaks down the push for external controls, incentives and accountability increases. High stakes testing, standardization and market management becomes more important. We are de professionalizing education and turning schools into businesses. We have discussed these issues at length earlier and in general we seem to be moving away from what works in other countries. The one exception seems to be class size. Many of the high performing nations have larger classes, but the strong cultures of learning and respect for teachers make this feasible.

However, we could look at international comparisons by seeing how different U.S. schools populations compare. What if we compare American students  according to rates of poverty, which has been shown to be highly related to differences in student achievement. Using the 2009 Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) tests in reading, U.S. schools with fewer than 10 percent of students in poverty ranked first among all nations, while those serving more than 75 percent of students in poverty ranked about fiftieth (Darling-Hammond, 2012).

What if we look at the U.S. scores by percentage of schools’ students in poverty in international comparisons using the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMMS)?

In the PIRLs, U.S. students in schools with less than 10% poverty rate, which constituted 13% of all U.S. students scored the highest, those in the 10%-25% range were ranked second and those with 25%-50% poverty ranked only behind Sweden, Netherlands and England. In the TIMMS fourth-grade science rankings these same groups were ranked first, second and fourth respectively (Bracey, 2007, p. 133).

Breaking the data down by poverty rate results in wealthier students in the United States outperforming all other nations. The strong relationship between poverty and test scores seen in the PIRLS data are replicated in the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), in the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), and in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)  (Bracey, 2009, p. 4). So maybe we should be looking to our own high scoring schools in the U.S. to see what they are doing that we can learn from.

It is the high poverty schools in the U.S. that need to improve, not the wealthy ones, but the reforms being put upon these poor schools are the opposite of what is working in the high scoring nations and what is used in the most elite and high-scoring schools in the United States (Evans, 2000). No respectable independent private school in the United States, which charges tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, uses the U.S. reform policies being legislated on the schools serving low-income families. If they did, they would go out of business. What might we learn from them?

Though U.S. average scores are middling internationally, the rankings of many of our schools are the best in the world. How do we explain that? Another way of looking at the international assessment data is the real numbers of students who score well.

A publication from OECD itself observes that if one examines the number of highest-scoring students in science, the United States has 25% of all high-scoring students in the world (at least in “the world” as defined by the 58 nations taking part in the assessment—the 30 OECD nations and 28 “partner” countries). Among nations with high average scores, Japan accounted for 13% of the highest scorers, Korea 5%, Taipei 3%, Finland 1%, and Hong Kong 1% (Bracey, 2009, pp. 2-3).

With a larger population, the United States would be expected to have a larger percentage, but looking at the highest scorers gives a different impression than looking at the national average scores, which include all students. What we have not discussed, but is an important question, is who and what are being assessed. How should we interpret the results of these assessments? Many questions and concerns can be raised. One final question—though the United States had consistently scored low to middling since 1964, why is it that these scores only become a concern in times of economic turmoil and how do we account for the times of  prosperity with the same scores?

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About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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