As educators from 23 nations meet in New York City this week for the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession, teachers in the United States may be wondering what they can learn from other countries with such different contexts and cultures.
A report from the Grattan Institute, a public policy think tank based in Australia, suggests the answer is plenty.
The report, “Catching up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia,” by Ben Jensen, examines four of the world’s five highest-performing education systems based on the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment)—Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai, and Singapore.
Contrary to popular assumptions, the report notes that the success of these school systems is not culturally determined. Eleven years ago Hong Kong ranked 17th in international assessments of reading literacy and Singapore ranked 15th. Five years later in 2006 they ranked 2nd and 4th.
What did these nations do to change their trajectory?
According to Jensen, they focused on the things known to matter in classrooms: a relentless, practical focus on learning; the creation of a strong culture of teacher education, research, collaboration, mentoring, feedback, and sustained professional development.
“The role of teachers is essential,” Jensen concludes, ‘they are partners in reform.”
In Korea, teachers must pass entrance exams, including classroom demonstrations, before becoming teachers. In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors, and new teachers have several mentors who focus on classroom management and subject-matter content. Shanghai teachers also belong to research and lesson groups that continuously develop and evaluate innovative teaching. Shanghai teachers cannot rise to advanced teacher status without having published a peer-reviewed paper. In Hong Kong, teachers regularly observe each other’s classrooms in order to change teaching culture and improve pedagogy.
Singapore developed a program to ensure that at least one teacher in every school had the capacity to undertake evidence-based research so that he or she could help their colleagues develop research skills. Singapore also created a comprehensive system of teacher appraisal that enables teachers to follow four different career tracks, with movement within and between tracks based on teachers’ individual performance and potential. The performance-management system includes extensive planning of teachers’ activities, frequent coaching and mentoring, reflection and feedback, and opportunities for professional learning and increased pay.
Moreover, these nations have improved performance while maintaining, and often increasing, equity. For example, in Shanghai, the bottom 10 percent of math students perform at a level that is 28 months ahead of the bottom 10 percent of students in the U.S. Thirty years ago, about 40 percent of young Koreans, ages 25-34, finished secondary education; now it is 98 percent.
These countries don’t necessarily spend more than other nations; but they have made some trade-offs. In Shanghai, teachers teach larger, but fewer, classes to devote significant time to other professional activities. Shanghai teachers teach classes of up to 40 students for 10-12 hours each week so they can spend time preparing lessons, collaborating with their colleagues, observing classrooms, and giving and receiving feedback—all activities known to improve learning.
In contrast, Jensen notes, American teachers have only 12 minutes between each class to concentrate on the activities that are so important in high-performing education systems in East Asia.
These kinds of international lessons should give us hope that if we put U.S. teachers and their potential front and center, and give them the supports they need, we too can see rapid improvements in performance.