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What We Can and Cannot Learn From International Comparisons

In education reform circles, people often express deep concerns about the mediocre performance of American students on international assessments such as PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS. There is good reason to be concerned that U.S. students score behind peer nations such as Finland, Netherlands, and Canada, and the international comparisons do provide a useful benchmark to tell us how our students are doing overall. However, while we can learn from the practices of other countries with high scores, we also need to maintain perspective.

First, there is great variation within our own country; representative samples of students in Massachusetts and Minnesota were given the PISA test, for example, and scored near the top, above most countries on most scales. Do these findings indicate that we should be studying Massachusetts and Minnesota as others are studying high-scoring Finland? Perhaps, but again, we should not get our knickers in a twist. Each of these states and countries has very different social and political contexts, and it is impossible to know which particular policy or practice contributes to the outcomes.

For example, a striking observation about Finland is that teachers are very highly respected there and only top students go into teaching. The teachers are not paid all that well, but for whatever reason, teaching is deeply valued. That's useful to know, but is it the main reason Finns do so well? Perhaps it's the long, cold winters with nothing else to do, the saunas, the completely phonetic language, the flatbread, the smoked fish. Who can say? And if the status of teachers were the key, what would we have to do in the US to get the top university graduates to go into teaching?

International comparisons are intriguing, but never tell us what to do. American students will start outperforming Finnish ones when we start implementing more effective programs and practices, proven in research in our schools. We may get good ideas from other countries worth testing out in U.S. schools, but we cannot assume that because a given high-scoring country uses a particular practice, that practice is what causes their high scores or is good for us.

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