Some of my darkest days as a new teacher in an English state secondary school were also the ones that stirred my interest in international education systems. In addition to the expected challenges and exhaustion faced by any new teacher, I was increasingly frustrated that some of the difficulties I faced daily were enhanced, or even created, by the requirements and structure of the education system. Well-meaning policies at a national level didn’t always help teachers to help students, especially those students that were doubly disadvantaged by a challenging home environment and a school history of low educational attainment. It got me thinking about what policies could make a more positive difference, and in my less optimistic moments, whether any policies could.
Most teachers would take solace in ice cream, jogging, or a glass of wine on a Friday night. I took solace in the PISA data (in addition to one of the above). I read that some countries manage to get their teenagers to a higher average level of math, reading and science than we do, and what’s more, some manage this while also mitigating the effect of family background on test scores. I read more about these places during my Masters in Education, and learned about the common features of these top-performing systems as skillfully identified by the OECD and analysts at McKinsey. But I still felt that I was missing an understanding of the effects of these policies in classrooms, and so I decided to go and have a look for myself.
I sent a lot of emails to teachers around the globe; sometimes friends of friends, sometimes contacts through international organizations, most often complete strangers. I said that I was a teacher, that I was interested in education systems, and that I’d like to come and help out in their schools for a few weeks. I was lucky to receive a lot of positive responses, so I set off on a trip to Finland, British Columbia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan, spending three of four weeks in schools in each one, and spending my evenings and weekends talking about education with teachers. Here I will briefly share my emerging thoughts on the whole process of learning from other education systems.
If you take policies out of context, be sure to put them back in again
“What works?” in education is a very important question, and thankfully, one which is increasingly discussed and explored at a classroom and system level. At a classroom level, it is possible for researchers to carry out randomized control trials, but at a system level, all we can do is isolate key features and policies and perform statistical analyses to see whether they correlate with success on international tests.
This isolation is necessary in order to consider the merits of each feature, but when we are reflecting on the findings and their implications for policy elsewhere, it is important to remember that policies have their effects in context, and in concert with other policies.
To take a simple example, OECD commentary on the PISA 2012 results suggests that top performing systems tend to encourage their teachers to work together. This is true in both Singapore and Finland (two of the most culturally dissimilar countries I visited), but its success relies on the fact that teachers in both countries teach fewer hours per year than the OECD average, so have time to plan together. If this practice were to be encouraged in the U.S.A. (where teachers spend many more hours teaching), it might not actually happen, and if it were mandated, there may be a higher risk of teacher burnout.
Although there are features in common, these are arrived at differently
Another supporting feature that allows co-planning to be effective is having the “right” people in the profession in the first place; a feature that is also effective in and of itself. Teaching is a popular career in both Finland and Singapore, allowing both countries to be selective about who they admit, but they have managed to get to this envious position in different ways.
In Finland, teaching isn’t paid particularly well, but teachers all have Masters degrees and are given a high degree of autonomy, so they have a reputation for being trusted professionals. In Singapore, the Ministry of Education offers teaching scholarships to high flyers, who have their degrees paid for and are bonded to state schools for five years subsequently. They pay retention bonuses, and have a sophisticated teacher career structure.
Both work well, but both are culturally located. Although they share common features they achieve these in different ways.
What works is not the only question
Most countries want their children to be able to read, do math and understand science. But what else do they want? And what are they willing to sacrifice to have their children outperform other nations in these subjects? These are valid questions too.
Alongside the common features that top systems share are differing features, based on different values, which have differing effects. These effects are also on those outcomes which are less easily measured: creativity, confidence, child mental health, resilience and vocational skills to name a few. Finland places a great deal of importance on equal opportunity, so makes setting by ability illegal and puts a lot of funding into supporting struggling students. Singapore has had to survive despite being a tiny island with few natural resources, so seeks to identify leadership talent early, and streams students into academic and vocational routes at age 12.
Both do well on PISA tests, but their students have very different experiences of education, and a different spread of skills and traits on graduation. Whether you think about education from a holistic or economic perspective, these less measurable skills and traits are just as important as cognitive skills, and there is more that systems can learn from each other in this area.
We must be mindful that although international test scores are extremely useful, they are necessarily narrow in scope. What is not measured must not be forgotten.
Lucy Crehan has set out solo to study some of the world's top-performing education systems, understanding how different policies interact and have their effects in context. She writes about it on her website, InsideClassrooms.com.