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Learning Globally, Implementing Locally

This month, education leaders from the United States and China gathered in Boston for an exchange on educational best practices. Maureen McLaughlin, senior advisor to Secretary and director of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education reports.

by Maureen McLaughlin

For two days, leaders of state and provincial education systems in two of the largest countries in the world—China and the United States—shared ideas and discussed efforts to improve teacher quality and the performance of weak or underachieving schools. With the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, Asia Society, Harvard University, and the U.S. Department of Education as partners, Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, hosted leaders from nine provinces and 13 states to build on and deepen a dialogue that started in Beijing last year.

The U.S. and China are intensifying efforts to benchmark their education systems against other systems around the globe and to learn what other countries are doing that could be helpful at home. Shanghai, one of China's leading provinces, participated in the PISA international test of student learning for the first time in 2009 and shot to the top of the international standings. This substantially increased interest around the world in what Shanghai—and by extension the rest of China—is doing to improve its educational outcomes.

Chinese and U.S. leaders visited two highly diverse schools: Boston's Orchard Garden Pilot School, a turnaround school whose students have shown double digit gains in achievement in the past two years, and Cambridge's Graham and Parks School, an elementary school whose students have over 4O home languages. The Chinese were particularly impressed by the teachers' respect for differences and diversity and their attention to helping each child succeed whether he/she speaks English, is a strong student, or a struggling learner.

The leadership teams at both schools embrace the belief that high-quality staff who build meaningful relationships with students and their families will help students to achieve at high levels. Extended learning time, a deep connection to the arts, and a strong student support system have yielded positive results at Orchard Garden School in a short time. Graham and Parks School has a clear theory of action—if adults learn together and seek out and solve problems together student achievement improves. Both schools clearly demonstrate that a focused vision on student success can be achieved by a caring and dedicated staff.

Provincial leaders in China also described their efforts to turnaround weak or underachieving schools. Shanghai, for example, is trying a number of approaches including asking the principals of high-performing schools to also manage a low-performing school and creating clusters of high- and lower-performing schools where teams of experienced teachers are transferred into the weaker schools to help improve the quality of teaching and learning. The results are evaluated after two years to determine next steps.

While education efforts are huge and highly diverse between and within the U.S. and China, there are many common challenges. The common challenge—especially how to educate all children to high levels—and the desire to learn from each other bring us together. Learning from other countries to improve U.S. education and advance U.S. international priorities is a key objective of the Department's international strategy.

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