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Top Ten Ways to Become a High-Performing System (Part One)

What enables some countries' education systems to become global high performers? I've asked my colleague, Vivien Stewart, to offer advice to districts and states based on the lessons in her new book, A World-Class Education: Lessons from International Models of Excellence and Innovation (ASCD 2012). This is a two-part series; watch for more on Friday.

By Vivien Stewart

Hundreds of reforms are introduced into school systems around the country every year in curriculum pedagogy, governance, technology, and so on. Unfortunately, most fail to achieve the substantial improvements in student achievement that their advocates hoped for and, overall, U.S. educational performance has been flat for the past twenty years.

We now know that a number of other countries have gotten a lot better than us, accelerating educational improvement in a short time and on a large scale. Their success in improving hundreds of schools is inspiring. But what exactly has enabled them to raise their game and become global high performers? And are there lessons for U.S. schools?

My new book tells the stories of five very different systems—Australia, Canada, China (Shanghai), Finland, and Singapore. Despite differences in the details of policies and practices, as well as in the cultural contexts and political systems in these countries, there are clearly some common drivers of success.

Here are the ten big lessons from the world's top-performing and rapidly improving systems:

1. Long-Term Vision
The leaders of countries with high-performing education systems share a palpable conviction about the centrality of education to their dreams for their society—to raise people from poverty, achieve greater equality, develop a well-functioning multi-cultural society and, certainly, create a thriving economy and a growing number of good jobs. Each of these systems has a long-term vision for how education can achieve this, which is widely shared inside and outside the education system. In Singapore, for example, the vision helped to propel their economy from third world to first; China's 2020 vision was developed with online input from millions of people and includes universal high school graduation and world-class universities; Alberta asked all its citizens to contribute to a dialog on what the educated Albertan of 2030 should look like. Finland's vision was to become a modern society and economy, free from domination by larger powers.

2. Sustained Leadership
Major reforms are often triggered by an economic, social, or political crisis and may be led by a single strong leader. Such reform efforts can bring about significant improvement within a three- to five-year period, but substantial changes in performance or closing achievement gaps on a large scale require a longer time frame than most political cycles. Therefore high leadership turnover is a fundamental barrier to sustaining change.

Understanding this, the premier of Ontario regularly brought together all the key stakeholders—teachers, parents, business, students—to get buy in, iron out problems as they arose, and maintain sustained support for Ontario's reforms over a period of many years.

U.S. states and districts could likewise bring together a group of key stakeholders to define a vision for what the educated American should look like in 2030 and to build momentum towards this vision through political cycles and leadership turnover.

3. Ambitious Standards
Countries that excel set ambitious, universal, and clear standards for all their students, typically at the national or state/provincial level. The fundamental problem with locally set standards is that they lead to wildly varying expectations of performance and lower achievement overall.

Countries that have historically set standards at the local or state level are therefore increasingly coming together to create common standards across all jurisdictions. In Australia, for example, states have come together for the first time to create a national curriculum. In Alberta, Canada, standards are set at the provincial level and province-wide curricula and examination systems ensure those in both rural and urban areas have consistent opportunity to pursue these standards. In the United States, the Common Core State Standards are following international best practice in establishing fewer, clearer, and higher standards in some areas, but high-performing systems have standards in all subjects to avoid narrowing the curriculum.

4. Commitment to Equity
Leaders in every country proclaim their commitment to equity, but successful education systems focus on achieving equity in a strong and deliberate way.

Our mediocre performance on international assessments is due in part to the large percentage of students scoring at or below basic levels.

High-performing systems use a variety of approaches to minimize the impact of social background on student achievement. These include system wide policies like equitable funding, having common high expectations for all students, and ensuring high-quality teachers in every school. They also include classroom-level interventions like focused early literacy and math support and a variety of family and community supports outside of school.

These policies don't eliminate the gap between the children of parents with widely varying education levels, but they do significantly level the playing field to create a society that is open to talent from wherever it may come.

5. High-Quality Teachers and School Leaders
Vision, leadership, high standards, and commitment to equity are crucial starting points, but unless they affect teaching and learning in the classroom, they won't bring about significant change.

There is broad agreement among high-performing and improving countries that no matter what reform strategy they are pursuing, the quality of an education system rests on the quality of its teachers. These systems adopt policies to attract, prepare, support, reward, retain, and advance high-quality teachers.

As systems devolve more authority to schools, they need stronger leadership at the school level. School leaders focused on results are able to create the conditions that make effective teaching and learning possible. Many systems—Australia, Ontario, and Singapore among them—have created new frameworks and processes for training school leaders.

In general, high-performing systems put the energy up front in recruiting and supporting high-quality teachers rather than on the back end of reducing attrition and firing weak teachers.

To be continued on Friday.

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