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An Outsider's View of U.S. Education

By Ben Levin

I was fortunate to be the only non-U.S. person invited to be part of "The Futures of School Reform" project. That has given me a fascinating look into the U.S. school system; although, we tend to think that the U.S. and Canada are very similar, yet, in many respects, the countries are quite different, and education is one of those areas. Canada is often influenced by U.S. debates on policy, whether in education or other fields. Yet, as someone who gets to see education in quite a few parts of the world, I'm also struck often by how little attention is paid in the U.S. to the experience of other countries. In some ways that is the nature and privilege of being the most powerful country in the world, but it is not necessarily in any country's best interest to ignore the experience of others, especially in a field such as education, where quite a few other countries seem to experience more success. Canada, for example, is a country with a decentralized education system, as much population diversity as the U.S., but substantially better educational outcomes.

This isolationism about education policy is now changing in the U.S. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan convened, with support of the NEA, the AFT and the Council of Chief States School Officers, leaders from 15 education systems around the world in an "International Summit on the Future of the Teaching Profession". I had the opportunity to attend this event. The systems represented were highly varied, from England to Estonia to Poland to Norway to Japan and China. Their education systems are different in many ways. Nobody would suggest that the United states - or any other country - can simply borrow and apply policies and practices from other countries.

Yet, in many ways, these countries, many of them highly successful educationally, embody common features or perspectives, whether it is China with its 12 million teachers, or Slovenia with its 1.4 million total population. Moreover, these commonalities are no longer just a matter of hearsay or anecdote. Important international studies, such as the OECD's PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) or the recent McKinsey study on the World's best performing school systems, are bringing greater rigor to the international evidence.

Our group's contribution to this series of papers argues that there are important implications for U.S. education policy from the experience of other countries. We believe that it is possible to create significant improvement within the existing structures of education. Although we certainly do not oppose innovation in education, we do not believe that a huge amount of innovation or reinvention is a necessity to get better results. Based on experience elsewhere in the world, we suggest a few key strategies that we believe, if given greater prominence in education policy in the U.S., would be likely to lead both to better outcomes for students and to a more informed and less acrimonious debate. Within these ideas there is still much room for discussion on what they would mean and how they would work, but in our view, they represent a positive way forward for education in the United States.

Ben Levin holds a Canada Research Chair in Education Policy and Leadership at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He is also a former deputy minister of education for the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, Canada.

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