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Acing School Reform: Lessons from Asia

International rankings of the world's school systems came out today from the eminent research organization, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Asian school systems dominate the top of the list. 

Of great significance is this simple fact: being ranked a top-performing school system is a sure indicator for strong economic growth in the future.

Case in point: the economic rise of Asia correlated perfectly with systemic improvements to school systems in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Macao, and Chinese Taipei. The OECD's 2012 PISA results show these school systems top the lists again, plus a strong performance by newcomer Vietnam. The scores forecast the continued rise of the Asian middle class.

The rankings show American students perform at about OECD average. It's not that our education system has gotten worse; it's that other education systems have gotten better. Much better.

American schools place 22nd in literacy, 27th in science, and 36th in math. These numbers predict stagnant economic growth for the United States. Some people will likely dispute this conclusion, but that only two percent of U.S.15 year olds achieve at the highest level in mathematics whereas 30 percent do in Shanghai is a matter of fact, not opinion.

It's important for Americans to shift away from viewing this as an immutable deficit and instead focus on what the best-performing systems are doing so well. After all, many top-ranked school systems adopted practices from American education models. We have no shortage of innovation: our problem is consistency in implementation. We have a hard time spreading the best education so every student--and our education system as a whole--has a shot to be the best in the world. In a globalized economy, where graduates in Brooklyn compete with those in Berlin or Beirut or Beijing for jobs, we owe it to youngest generation to adopt better education practices, and quickly.

Top school systems have several traits in common. Here are five practices the United States would do well to adopt:

Envision success. Standardize high expectations for every student but individualize the pathways for learning that get them there. Shift from emphasizing what students know, to what they can do with what they know. In a global economy, graduates will need to be multilingual problem solvers.

Don't use test scores alone to determine teacher quality. High-performing school systems have cultures where teachers collaborate on lesson planning, instruction, and critical feedback. Teachers are held accountable, but never on the basis of a single test. Give teachers time and structure to work together so they can build a stronger teaching force.

Excellence comes with equity. The best school systems concentrate on struggling learners, and give them every advantage--highly talented teachers, proven effective principals, targeted funding, intervention specialists, and so forth--to create a system where there are no educational dead ends.

Invest in teachers. From recruitment to training to ongoing professional development, the best Asian school systems insist on one criterion: consistent excellence. This means delivering a practical education (Asian schools of education and research institutions are rarely separated from public schools); providing regular, research-based, high-impact mentoring and professional development; paying them well; and offering a clear and highly respectable career path.

Prize education. Students in top-performing school systems see a clearer connection between academics and future prospects. Create demand for a world-class education. Stand with parents and teachers who want the best for students. Talk with students about what they are learning and why it matters to them. Public and political will must be in place to give schools the support they need to move education reform forward--and eventually the mind trust to move our nation forward economically.

Join us online today at PISAday.org for live streaming of the OECD PISA release event from 10:00 - 3:00 Eastern. Understand the data and join in a conversation about how we can better support our schools. If you're in New York next week, join us live at Asia Society for a panel discussion on the same topic.

Follow Tony Jackson and Asia Society on Twitter.

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