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Learning with the World

In Sunday's New York Times, Tom Friedman writes about the link of parental involvement to student achievement, citing data collected by the OECD. Friedman specifically mentions high-achieving Singapore, the poster child for success on international education tests like PISA, a country which places a high value on parental buy-in and involvement in reform efforts. I just returned from a multi-country trip (including Singapore) as part of Asia Society's Learning with the World initiative, which is focused on expanding the conversation around international best practice and common issues of concern in education with policymakers here in the United States and those in Asia and other parts of the world. In the weeks to come, my colleagues and I will share some of these conversations and lessons with you. What we are finding is countries recognize that education will be key to economic growth in a global knowledge and innovation-based economy and that low educational performance exacts measurable economic costs. Therefore, they are focusing on increasing graduation rates, raising achievement, making educational systems more equitable, and rethinking the skills needed for the 21st century. This focus has led to dramatic gains on PISA scores—leaving the U.S. ranked at 26th (the average across the three PISA subject areas) in 2009. And countries aren't just gaining on us in international comparisons, but they are graduating more high school students as well—the U.S. dropped from first to tenth in the world in the proportion of young adults with a high school degree or equivalent in 2006.

A critical element of high-performing school systems is that they not only benchmark the practices of other countries, but they systematically adapt and implement these practices within their own cultural and political contexts. Educators in Singapore seek to 'dream, design, and deliver' a high-quality education for every child, drawing on ideas regardless of their origin. Some will say a place like Singapore is small and more centralized, making it easier to implement policies—the United States can't possibly accomplish the same thing. But what Singapore has accomplished can't be so easily dismissed. Their strategies for doing so much with so little in terms of continuous improvement, and expectations for consistent high performance across schools and the principles they have put in place to develop a high-quality human capacity are applicable elsewhere. I think Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, in Singapore said it best, 'Education must suit our unique context. We must always be humble and we must always learn from the best in the world. But we must not simply copy what works elsewhere, or do what is fashionable, without bearing in mind our unique culture, context and circumstances, and what we have achieved. We should have the courage and confidence to do what we think is right, and evolve our system to what is best for us.' The United States must now learn from these other countries if we are to remain competitive in the flat world.

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