State Lawmakers Should Look Abroad for Best Education Practices

  • 8-23-2016

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers urged their colleagues in state capitols across the country to take advantage of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to adopt some of the best practices from successful education systems around the world in order to give their own K-12 systems a much-needed facelift.

As outlined in a new report released Tuesday during the National Conference of State Legislators’ annual conference, the group of 28 state lawmakers spent the last two years visiting and studying the education policies of some of the best education systems in the world, including Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Poland, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan.

The education hot zones are just a few of the countries that bested the U.S. on theProgramme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, an international education assessment that compares the math, reading and science ability of 15-year-old students in of 65 countries.

In that exam, last administered in 2012, the U.S. performed below average in math and barely average in reading in science. In fact, among the 34 economically developed countries that also administered the test, the U.S. ranked 27th in math – an equivalent of two years behind top-performing Shanghai. According to the 2016 U.S. News/Ratheyon STEM Index, STEM employment and education gaps between men and women, and between whites and minorities, leave the U.S. in danger of falling even farther behind.

“We cannot ignore the reality that most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world, leaving the United States overwhelmingly under-prepared to succeed in the 21st century economy,” the state lawmakers wrote.

It’s been a long fall from grace for the U.S., which some 50 years ago boasted one of the best education system in the world. Some education policymakers have used the PISA results to bolster criticisms of an increasingly expensive K-12 system.

Indeed, the U.S. spends more per student than most countries despite the investment not translating into better performance. For example, the U.S. spends more than $115,000 per student, but its students tested most similarly to those in the Slovak Republic, which spends just $53,000 per student.

New results from the PISA test administered in 2015 are due out in December.

In the meantime, as students head back to classrooms this month for the start of a new school year, state legislators are urging their colleagues to take advantage of the new federal education law in order to capitalize on some of the common themes and policies countries with high-ranking education systems are utilizing.

That means, they underscore in the new report, an increased focus on early childhood education, a complete redesign of teacher preparation programs and a revival of career and technical education.

“Recent reforms have under-performed because of silver bullet strategies and piecemeal approaches,” the authors wrote, name-checking ideas like a reduction class size, an increase in school choice options and more rigorous standards and testing. “Meanwhile, high-performing countries implement policies and practices and build comprehensive systems that look drastically different from ours, leading them to the success that has eluded states.”

Those systems begin with students who have mastered the cognitive and non-cognitive skills needed to succeed in first grade, thanks to robust child care and early education initiatives that begin at birth, they note. And for traditionally underserved communities that might have a harder time accessing such programs, a re-imagining of how local and state money is distributed helps ensure students who need extra supports have the additional resources for things, especially highly qualified teachers.

On the topic of teachers, the group of state lawmakers reiterated what so many policymakers have underscored over the last few years: the need to re-envision teacher preparation from the top down, including everything from setting a higher bar for entry in the field to ensuring educators are better compensated.

Finally, the groups emphasized the need for states to think about education as a loop that has no dead-ends – meaning pathways to college are clear, and schools partner with employers to ensure students are learning in-demand skills while also offering job training.

“I believe we have identified the fundamentals of education that are necessary to succeed in preparing our children to be internationally competitive in today’s changing economy,” said Wisconsin state senator Luther Olsen, a Republican. “It is imperative that we acknowledge and adopt those fundamentals if we are to be champions in education again.”

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