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Thinking globally

A Stanford University economist offers advice on how we can learn from the world's best education systems.

By GreatSchools Staff

A senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Eric Hanushek has spent a lot of time looking at the discrepancies between education in different countries — and just what it means that the United States continues to lag behind top-performing nations like South Korea and Finland. One of his recent studies concluded that if U.S. schools could become as high performing as Finnish ones, the economic gains would be equivalent to a bonus of six times our gross domestic product (GDP), amounting to $103 trillion.

GreatSchools caught up with Hanushek to get his perspective on global education and what we can take away from all those test scores.

GreatSchools: What can we learn from other countries' education systems?

Eric Hanushek: If nothing else, it shows you what’s possible. Other more successful nations offer a benchmark. Seeing other countries makes us realize that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

GreatSchools: Which nations should be role models for American reform?

Hanushek: I find it difficult to see what we can take away in specifics. There are so many differences: Some countries have more homogenous populations, some countries have higher levels of parental involvement, some have large class sizes, some have smaller ones. There are nations with each of those characteristics that perform better than we do, so how can we know which specifics can make the difference for American schools?

There was one thing I got out of the McKinsey study [a 2007 report that analyzed high-performing school systems worldwide]. There was one line, I recall, to the effect that countries that perform well don’t let a bad teacher stay in the classroom very long. Somehow a lot of other nations have figured that out.

GreatSchools: Among high-performing countries, which one is most comparable to the United States?

Hanushek: Canada looks a lot like us. There’s an influx of immigrants; they have strong unions; it’s a federalist system. And yet it does better than we do, and it improves over time. Canada tends to equal out achievement over time — if you look [at] how students achieve in grade 4 and grade 8, kids improve the longer they are in school. Though I’m reluctant to say why. Everyone wants to go to Finland; I want to go to Canada.

GreatSchools: How can parents make use of information about education in other countries?

Hanushek: Parents are very important in education in terms of reading to their children and so forth. But they’re also immensely important because parents choose the school. Once you get your child into a school, finding them an effective teacher is the most important thing. You need to make sure you have good teachers in front of your kids.

Parents need to be more involved in how we make decisions about which teachers stay in the classroom. By tradition, a lack of aggressiveness [around firing teachers] and union contracts has meant that most of the decision making about who stays in the classroom and who doesn’t is the teacher’s own decision. We need to change this — we need to be more actively involved.

GreatSchools: Are there any ideas you would like the United States to adopt from other countries that the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests have brought into focus?

Hanushek: The PISA tests show that some nations have a lot larger concern about student performance. When the PISA results are announced, for instance, it’s front-page news in every local newspaper in Germany. But if you ask the average person in the Department of Education what PISA is, they’ll tell you it’s a tower in Italy. It doesn’t get that much attention here, but we ought to take it seriously.

Comments from readers

"If we want US children to be better than the children in other countries they need to learn all these other children learn and then some more, not less. Unfortunatelly, that does not happen. The schools are destroying this country. The principals and teachers are guilty of this crime against the children and the future of this country. I would jail them for their incompetence, it is not acceptable they get paid for teaching children and fail so miserably. They do discipline and lining up and shushing the children and focus on anything but study. They waste time with all kinds of useless procedures and very little time is devoted to real learning. Unfortunatelly generations of chidlren are destroyed by these people and who is going to stop them? I am a parent, my children are being harrassed under my eyes and there is nothing I can do, I can not take them to another school, the principal is being rude to us and abusive to the children and pretty much we can only put them in a private school. We do not have the money for that. So, how exactly can parents change the system, can anyone tell me? Who listens to the parents, what organisation fights for our right as well, and for the wellbeing of our children? We complain in vain, nobody cares. The principals and teachers have too much power and they do not need to care. They abuse their power and we can not do anything. How can this be happening? What kind of twisted reality is upon us? Everyday we here on the enws how bad the schools ar and what abuses and ridiculous things are happening, and what is the result? Nothing changes. Waste of time. All talk and no power and consequence. "
"This is not true. The educational system in Korea and Findland are not better than the United States educational system. This a rumor spread by and incorrect studies done by companies that receive profilts for producing such reports in order to excuse the moving of US jobs overseas. I have had many friends from both of these countries. And, I have seen school transcrips. People should stop spreading these lies. If their educational systems our better then they should be the most powerful country in the world. They still don't have nuclear weapons and a method to deliver them. Stop this NONSENSE. I could go on and on with proffs. "
"I was educated in Europe, my kids 5 years in Canada and now we are in US. US schools are missing one big factor. DISCIPLINE. Any other country focus first on discipline, respect and focus in school that's why they are more succesful. In US everybody is trying to please kids too much and there is a missing point. Bad behavior? Sorry there are some consequences! In Canada my kids had Code de vie on the wall ( Expectations for the right behavior in the class ) and a big signs all over the scholl - Respect. If there are strong rules than there are no suprises what is next if the rule is broken. Everybody behaves than better and we can focus more on academics than just trying constently please 'bad' kids. In Europe we had to stand up when teacher eneters the classroom, lift up our hand in the order to get permission to talk, we had higher expectation to fill. There was stronger authority and better respect to teachers. In US schools teacher is the last person anybody listens to."
"I absolutely agree with this phrase: Parents need to be more involved in how we make decisions about which teachers parents want My child attends to one of the most recognized schools at North Texas “ Heritage Elementary�, and when I requested an specific Teacher for the next term, this was the answer: Thank you for your email. I do not accept specific teacher requests. I will keep your information on file when considering class placements for the 2010-2011 school year. So, per you opinion : We need to change this � we need to be more actively involved. How do we get this accomplished, the system works toward the opposite way. "
"The implication of Dr. Hanushek's statement about the importance of parents is stunning. Without saying so outright, he opines that we cannot count on school districts to ensure that all children have the best schools and effective teachers. Parents have to ensure that that happens. I think he is absolutely correct. And there is something fundamentally wrong with that being the case. No wonder there is such interest in finding ways to circumvent 'system.'"
"As a Canadian statistician with experience as a testing director in American schools, I have had opportunities to compare systems across the border. Prof. Hanushek is correct that the two countries' school systems have much in common. But there are two key difference that researchers do not factor into comparisons. Number one is labor. In Canada, a teaching job is highly-prized. It attracts the brightest college students who are paid extremely well. Where I worked in Fairfax, VA teachers were also paid very high wages - comparable, or better than Canada. But high wages are available only to teachers in a few high income American communities: like the Long Island, NY school districts. In Canada, teacher salaries are set at a provincial level. So a teacher at a West Vancouver public school (the hidhest-income postal code in the nation) earns the same (approximately) salary as a teacher in Turtle River. The number two difference is health. The Psychological Corporation creates separate norms for IQ tests like the WISC, because Canadian students' average score is higher than American students' score. The Japanese noted a similar artifact and inferred that a score difference proves that Japanese are inherently more intelligent than Americans. Canadians are more modest - and less racist. Canadian children at the lowest income levels have much better access to health care than similar SES students in the US. How many children in Southeast DC suffer hearing loss from untreated otitis media? What did you ask? The agriculture analogy is that two identical corn seeds will differ if the environment intrudes. A disease-free corn stalk tends to be much taller and more robust than a fungus-infected shoot that is ignored. Just these two confounding variables limit the validity of conclusions about Canadian versus American schooling. There could well be other issues to consider. The health variable has never been controlled in PISA or other international studies like TIMMS. Researchers might argue that the health variable should not be controled - it is an artifact of American society. But the presence of non-random variance casts doubt on conclusions about school systems, curricula, teaching, and the economics of funding a program. Better research would consider all variables where national systems differ. President Obama recently praised South Korean public schools because Koreans have high achievement. But public schools cannot be credited with that achievement. South Korean students spend more hours per day in cramming tutorials than they do in public schools. I interpret that information as damning Korean public education. And better research would also identify cross-border variables that are similar. Prof. Hanushek is again correct that, in most American states, it is pretty much impossible to fire an incompetent tenured teacher. Canada may have better scores, but the tenure situation is identical - the job is for life. A Canadian teacher who is rude to parents, insubordinate to the principal, and uncaring to children cannot be fired if that person has been granted tenure by a public school board. It doesn't matter if students fail every test and the teacher ignores the curriculum. And in some places, tenure is automatic after only one year (really 9 months). At a minumum, useful research into Canadian and American school systems would compare regions where labor laws are similar. We won't even get into the issue that Canada does not have private elementary and secondary education as America does. In Canada, every pulic school superintendent sends his (it's still pretty much all male - just like the US) kids to public schools. In the US, I always ask senior public school officials if their own children attend the public schools under their management. The answer is typically, 'No.' From my Canadian perspective - where private schools are almost unkown - I inferred this decision as a face validity issue. Like Groucho Marx, they don't want their kids in any school that is so bad it would hire a person like them. The reality is more complex. A high school principal earns at least $150,000 in wealthy districts like Fairfax, VA. The Americans' decision to send their children to private schools is based on status. As a friend explained, 'Above a certain income level, no one in the country sends their children to public schools.' So, despite the seeming consideration, President Obama's children were never going to attend DC public schools. The president and Mrs. Obama earn more than that 'certain income level.' A high school principal in Danville, VA might send his kids to the local public school, but his decision has more to do with his income: away from the white suburbs, he doesn't earn anywhere near $150,000 per annum. Much could be learned from US/Canadian public school comparisons - if funding was available to conduct investigations that met standards for scientific research. Most conclusions I read are just that - conclusions. People far removed from the original research extrapolate policy consideraions that are only tenuously connected to weak evidence and could be contradicted by the influence of uncontrolled variables. What is worse, factors that may introduce non-random variance are rarely acknowledged by researchers. In some cases, it is unclear whether researchers have recognized that those factors exist. Unsupportable conclusions provide poor evidence for adopting a system from a foreign country."
"While these kinds of international comparisons have some value, that value is limited. And I'd agree without moving out bad teachers as quickly as possible -- within the first 3-4 years. Then, work like to dickens to retain the good teachers, and place them where they are most needed. But, I'm not at all convinced that a country like Singapore is one we'd like to emulate. For an eye-opening view of that modern city-state, read Chapter 21, Night Train to Singapore, in Paul Theroux's travelog, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. If one is into totalitarian, self-proclaimed benevolent dictator governmental regimes, then Singapore is a good model. That's not our model -- as flawed as it is. "
"I have two comments: (1) I agree that bad teachers shouldn't stay in the classroom. Teaching should be a professional job, and in the professional world, you don't get to stay in your job very long if you're not good at it. If you are that person, that reality can stink. Maybe you studied for years to achieve this goal and it turns out you're not particularly good at it. But it is better in the long run for EVERYONE (yourself included), if you are not in a job that you're not good at. (2) I think the reason more Americans don't look at the PISA study is just our 'U.S.-centric' attitude. We think everything great was invented in the U.S. (a generalization, I know...but there's some truth to it). We spend a lot of time trying to invent the right answers ourselves instead of considering what the other nations in the world are doing and what could work for us, even in a modified way."