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Caution on Comparing International Education Systems

Sooner or later, a new report by an entity with an impressive title will be released finding students in the U.S. once again coming up short against their counterparts in other countries around the globe. Predictably, the results will be seized on by critics as further evidence of the crisis afflicting schools here.

But rankings don't tell the whole story by a long shot. Anyone who doubts this view needs to read Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform, edited by Iris C. Rotberg (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010). This second edition looks at education in 16 countries, including the U.S. It includes the original chapters that appeared in the first edition published in 2004, along with updates for each. The entries are essays written by those with first-hand knowledge of each country.

What Rotberg says cannot be emphasized enough at this crossroads in the reform movement: Any education system "represents a country's social and political priorities and often its historical antecedents." As a result, the lessons learned from each country do not "transfer readily to countries that are quite different in values, culture and history." Reformers either overlook or minimize this caveat. That's a serious mistake because countries vary widely in their vision about how to conduct education, and in their experiences in doing so. Consider the following:

The U.S. is still agonizing over the value of high-stakes tests because of concern about their effect on democratization of education. But Singapore, whose students regularly finish near the top on tests of international competition, begins sorting out children into different tracks with its Primary School Leaving Exam, and continues the differentiation process throughout their entire schooling years without any qualms.

The U.S. is also attempting to promote parental choice of schools. The various strategies under this wide umbrella are presented as ways to allow the most disadvantaged children to escape failing neighborhood schools. Yet as Robert W. McMeekin explains in his chapter on Chile titled "Vouchers and Beyond," competition has resulted in the closure of few underperforming schools in the more than two decades that choice has been in place.

The U.S. is further engaged in establishing a national curriculum. Not surprisingly, the proposal is meeting stiff resistance from those who support America's long tradition of local control of education. In his chapter titled "Diverse Populations, Centralized Administration," Gerard Bonnet explains what transpired in France when it adopted a policy to strengthen decentralization in all areas of education. Although France's transition moves in the opposite direction of America's transition, the parallels are striking.

Rotberg's book provides an infusion of much needed reality at a time when so many conflicting assertions are made with such far-reaching implications for improving schools in this country. It's little wonder that taxpayers are thoroughly frustrated. But if nothing else provides relief, they need to bear in mind that our schools are known worldwide for their creativity and innovation. In the final analysis, this is our greatest strength. No test has been devised so far to measure it.

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