The Global Context for Education

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Overview

The Global Context for Education

Interest has mounted over the past several years in how U.S. students stack up academically against their peers abroad, as well as the potential lessons educators and policymakers here might glean from high-achieving nations.

In late 2016, a raft of fresh student performance data is expected out from a pair of major international assessments best known by the acronyms PISA and TIMSS. PISA tests 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science. TIMSS tests fourth and eighth graders in math and science.

Interest has mounted over the past several years in how U.S. students stack up academically against their peers abroad, as well as the potential lessons educators and policymakers here might glean from high-achieving nations.

In late 2016, a raft of fresh student performance data is expected out from a pair of major international assessments best known by the acronyms PISA and TIMSS. PISA tests 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science. TIMSS tests fourth and eighth graders in math and science.

The last major release of such data —from the high-profile PISA exam in December 2013 — once again delivered some sobering news: U.S. 15-year-olds slipped in the global rankings. The news sparked headlines around the country, as well as public statements from political and education leaders.

“We’re running in place as other high-performing countries start to lap us,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lamented.

In all three subjects tested, more countries scored above the U.S. average for 15-year-olds on PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, than the last time the exam was administered in 2009. Overall, U.S. achievement in reading and science was just average among the 34 member nations of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. In mathematics, the United States was still below the average for those industrialized nations.

Economic Implications

Many political and business leaders argue that if the United States can’t keep pace educationally with other leading nations, its economic vitality is at risk. Some analysts have even sought to quantify the economic costs. Research from McKinsey & Co. finds that the achievement gap may cost trillions of dollars in lost economic output. Economist Eric Hanushek of Stanford University contends that if the United States increased its average math performance by 40 points on PISA, it would add between 7 percent and 11 percent annually to its gross domestic product.

Although some experts question such efforts to directly connect educational achievement and the economy, there is widespread agreement that the United States must do a better job of preparing its young people for success in life and the workforce. As educators, elected officials, and advocates seek to address this challenge, global test results and the potential lessons to be gleaned from high-performing nations have increasingly become part of the conversation. In one recent example, the National Conference of State Legislatures launched a bipartisan International Education Study Group in 2014.

And yet, making sense of educational achievement in an international context is no simple matter, nor is it always clear what to take away from the educational policies and practices in other nations, given vastly different political, social, and cultural contexts. In addition, understanding the real economic implications for the nation of educational achievement and attainment is complicated.

Different Tests, Different Results

One challenge in interpreting global achievement data is figuring out which tests to focus on. The results — and the standing of U.S. students — vary substantially, depending on the particular exam. For instance, although PISA tells one story, recent data from two other international tests — TIMSS for math and science, and PIRLS for reading — offer a different perspective. Released in late 2012, the data from those two exams tend to reflect more positively on U.S. achievement on the global stage, even as they also point to some reasons for concern. (TIMSS stands for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. PIRLS is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.)

U.S. scores in reading, math, and science were all above the global average, the TIMSS and PIRLS data show. And yet, U.S. fourth and eighth graders fell far short of some East Asian countries in math and science. Especially alarming to some observers was the much smaller proportion of high-achievers in the United States. Nearly half of all students tested in South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan scored at the “advanced” level or above in math on TIMSS, compared with only 7 percent of American test-takers. In general, experts caution that it’s important to look beyond the national averages in considering results, including breakdowns by socioeconomic status as well as the share of students at different achievement levels.

In any case, it’s critical to understand some key differences between international exams. For starters, PISA tests 15-year-olds, while TIMSS tests fourth and eighth graders. (In the next round, TIMSS will also test 12th graders.) PIRLS is only for fourth graders. Also, the exams do not test the same set of countries, though there is significant overlap. Even as PISA over time has expanded the number of participating countries and economies, the core group is the 34 member nations of the OECD, and average PISA scores are based on that set of industrialized countries. TIMSS and PIRLS calculate average scores based on all participating nations, including both leading industrialized countries as well as developing nations such as Algeria, El Salvador, and Iran, to name a few.

But arguably the most critical difference is the focus of the exams. PISA explicitly seeks to assess the application of knowledge and skills in reading, math, and science to real-world situations. TIMSS, by contrast, is “designed to align broadly with mathematics and science curricula” in participating countries, as the National Center for Education Statistics explains, and so aims to gauge how well students have learned key concepts and skills taught in school. The TIMSS exam includes a mix of question types, including some that “require students to select appropriate responses while others require that students solve problems and provide written answers,” the NCES notes. For PISA, “the tests are a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that are organized in groups based on a passage setting out a real-life situation,” an OECD overview explains.

Both assessments also include the collection and reporting of survey data that provide a glimpse into the context for learning, including instructional practices, school resources, and other factors. (For far more detailed information, see these separate overviews for the TIMSS assessment, for PISA, and for PIRLS, which tests reading comprehension.)

Comparing States to Nations

A growing dimension of global comparisons is interest among individual states, as well as local schools and districts, in figuring out how they measure up. Some experts argue, for instance, that it makes far more sense to compare a state like Minnesota or Vermont to Finland, than to compare such a small and homogeneous country to the United States at large. The potential policy lessons also may be more directly applicable to a state.

To that end, for the first time, several U.S. states (Connecticut, Florida, and Massachusetts) opted to get separately reported results on the most recent PISA exam, issued in December 2013. The Bay State made an especially strong showing with its results, while Florida struggled to compete. Also, a growing number of states are getting separate results on other global exams. In all, nine U.S. states, including Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and North Carolina, opted to have large enough samples to do so on the most recent TIMSS exam.

A survey from the Education Week Research Center in 2012 found that 29 states said they were drawing on international comparisons in crafting specific measures for improving education. Twelve states said they were looking to other nations as they consider academic standards, and a handful reported looking abroad for ideas for setting performance standards on their state assessments. Among the countries and jurisdictions states cited as being of greatest interest when it comes to math and science education were Canada, England, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, and Singapore.

To dive down still further, the OECD is now offering a PISA-Based Test for Schools, which allows individual schools to place their own achievement in a global context. About 450 U.S. schools from all over the country, most of them public schools, have participated at least once over the past several years. This tool is designed to support research, benchmarking, and school improvement efforts. The reports schools receive provide descriptive information and analyses on the skills and creative application of knowledge of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science, comparable to the existing PISA results for other countries. Other initiatives to promote the sharing of knowledge across nations include the Global Cities Education Network, led by the Asia Society, which currently includes the U.S. cities of Denver, Houston, Lexington (Kentucky), Seattle, as well as Hong Kong, Melbourne, Shanghai, Seoul, Singapore, and Toronto.

Cherry-Picking Favored Policies?

If comparing achievement in a meaningful way can be challenging, what experts say is an even more difficult task is figuring out what lessons to learn from abroad. For one, the U.S. system—or perhaps systems is a better word—tends to be far more decentralized than many other countries’, with much authority left to individual states and local school districts. This surely has been one catalyst for American states, districts, and schools to seek their own snapshot of how they measure up to competing nations.

A familiar refrain among various educational advocates is to champion a particular dimension of education policy they may already favor as the real lesson from high-achieving nations. But many experts emphasize that even as there can be real value in examining a school, state, or the nation in an international context, political leaders and educators should be cautious and nuanced when interpreting test scores and seeking to decide on the lessons other nations have to offer.

As James Stigler, a professor at UCLA put it in an Education Week article, “You can’t take one element or one variable out of a system and expect it to work. We need to understand how different countries are producing results, but we need to be sophisticated in how we interpret those results.”

With such caveats in mind, there’s no shortage of education advocates and experts who have sought to identify policies and practices in high-performing nations that may be worthy of emulation. One key issue is teacher quality and preparation. Nations such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea are renowned for their intensive efforts to ensure a top-notch teacher workforce. Indeed, the status of teaching is likened to that of doctors and lawyers, whereas in the United States it holds far less prestige. Experts note that teaching is both respected and aggressively supported in many of the highest-achieving countries and education systems. In Finland, teachers also get considerable autonomy.

Also, high academic standards paired with a rigorous, well-aligned curriculum are often cited as common attributes of strong education systems overseas. Even the length of the school year has gotten attention in global comparisons, with Secretary Duncan highlighting this difference between U.S. schools and those in South Korea.

Still another topic that has sparked a look overseas is career and technical education. A panel at EWA’s 2015 National Seminar, “Rethinking Career & Technical Education in a Global Context,” tackled this issue head on. Amid worries of a “skills gap” for U.S. youths and young adults, some experts are calling for ramping up and reinventing CTE with a combination of academic rigor and meaningful work-based experiences. And as they do so, they are training a close eye on best practices overseas, especially in countries such as Switzerland, Germany, and Singapore.

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AFT president Randi Weingarten sent a letter in April to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico urging them “not to make devastating funding cuts to the education system that serves the 379,000 students in Puerto Rico.” The federal fiscal board is overseeing Puerto Rico’s efforts to deal with bankruptcy and resolve its debt.

Member Stories

January 19-26
Some of our favorite stories by EWA members this week

In a story about higher graduation rates for students in career and technical education programs, one source tells Natalie Pate of the Statesman Journal that while math or English may not be students’ favorite classes, “they are more willing to put in the time and do the work” because they can see the relationship between what they are learning and the projects they work on.

 

Key Coverage

What Can this Tiny Island Show Texas About Finding Great Teachers? A Lot, Actually

This Asian island roughly the size of Austin has dominated international rankings in education, with students regularly outperforming their peers in math, science and literacy.

Singapore officials say the key to that success was simple: Hire only the best teachers.

“Teaching is akin to nation building. It’s about survival,” said Ee Ling Low, a professor to aspiring teachers at the country’s National Institute of Education.

Webinar

New PISA Results: Putting U.S. Achievement in Global Context

New PISA Results: Putting U.S. Achievement in Global Context

How will the U.S. fare against other countries when the results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are released Dec. 6? At our reporters-only webinar, get advance, embargoed access to the full report, as well as an opportunity to ask questions about the findings from a leader at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Webinar

An Insider’s Guide to International Test Results

An Insider’s Guide to International Test Results

Get ready. A fresh wave of global test results for dozens of nations is about to hit U.S. shores. Outcomes from two major exams will be issued just days apart: TIMSS on Nov. 29. PISA on Dec. 6.

Once again, we’ll get a snapshot of how U.S. students stack up against their peers overseas in key subjects, including math, reading, and science. And we’ll hear lots of rhetoric about what it all means.

EWA Radio

Is the U.S. Overlooking Its Littlest Learners?
EWA Radio: Episode 91

(Flickr/First Hattiesburg)

Who needs preschool? What do we know about the programs that produce the best long-term results? And why is America lagging so far behind many countries in providing high-quality, affordable programs to young learners?

In a six-part series for The Hechinger Report, Lillian Mongeau examines the latest research, visits classrooms in the U.S. and abroad, and looks at efforts to raise the bar for certification and training for early childhood educators. She talks with EWA public editor Emily Richmond about what she learned in places like Boston and England, and offers smart story ideas for reporters in their own communities. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

The boys (and girls) are back in town. For class, that is.

See how forced that lede was? Back-to-school reporting can take on a similar tinge of predictability, with journalists wondering how an occasion as locked in as the changing of the seasons can be written about with the freshness of spring.

Recently some of the beat’s heavy hitters dished with EWA’s Emily Richmond about ways newsrooms can take advantage of the first week of school to tell important stories and cover overlooked issues.

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Victories Adding Up for U.S. Math Olympians

The winning U.S. team at the International Math Olympiad in Hong Kong. (Photo credit: Po-Shen Loh)

After learning of their gold-medal victory in the world’s most prestigious high school mathematics competition — held recently in Hong Kong — six American teenagers engaged in a celebratory ritual familiar to many of their peers back home: They went to McDonald’s. But the victors weren’t quite ready to leave the math behind.

Report

The Learning Landscape
Bellwether Education Partners

This report examines the status of education in the United States by aggregating high quality research and data from numerous credible sources. Each chapter describes the context and the current state of play in each focus area — including student achievement, standards and testing; school finance, and charter schools, among others. It highlights key policy issues and trends affecting public education now and in the future. 

EWA Radio

Farewell Finland, Hello . . . Estonia?
EWA Radio: Episode 79

Estonian students on their way to school. (Flickr/B Miller)

There’s another small country getting attention for its strong student performance on international assessments, and for the equity of its instructional programs.

Sarah Butrymowicz of The Hechinger Report joins EWA public editor Emily Richmond to discuss how more eyes are looking beyond Finland to nearby Estonia, a relatively young country with an already impressive academic track record. What lessons might there be for U.S. schools when it comes to teacher workforce, and putting more educational choices in the hands of the students themselves? And what challenges are Estonian schools facing as more students opt for the college-prep high school track over vocational or career training? 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Trump’s Education Agenda, in 52 Seconds

Trump’s Education Agenda, in 52 Seconds

With Donald Trump now seen as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, after his strong victory in the Indiana primary, attention surely will grow to what he would actually do if elected.

If you want to know where Trump stands on education, you might think the first place to go would be his campaign website.

EWA Radio

Does America Need a ‘Math Revolution’?
EWA Radio: Episode 63

(Flickr/Mathematical Association of America)

We know many American students struggle with math and trail many of their international peers. Conventional wisdom says that’s keeping them from developing the kind of critical thinking skills they need for high-paying STEM careers, and to be successful in a 21st century global economy. But is that shortsighted view of a bigger — and more positive — picture?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Global Lens on Teacher Quality

A classroom at the Turku University Teacher Training School in Littoinen, Finland. The country sets a high bar for entrance into the teaching profession. (Jari Sjölund/Flickr via Creative Commons)

High-achieving countries share some common practices when it comes to the recruitment, training and development of public-school teachers, according to experts at a recent Education Writers Association event.

A few years ago in Singapore, teachers in a high school English department posed a question: Would having students conduct live debates on an issue before they wrote persuasive essays about it result in more highly developed final papers?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Putting Global Student Tests, U.S. Rankings in Context

(Flickr/Global Panorama via Creative Commons)

Near the end of 2016, results will come out for two major international assessments — kicking off a new round of analysis and debate over the standing of U.S. students on the global stage.

“We are really covering the whole range when it comes to these international studies,” said Dana Kelly, an official with the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the administration of both exams to U.S. students.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

‘Global Cities’ Share Strategies to Enhance Educational Equity

Kindergarten students at Warden Avenue Public School in Toronto, Canada. As more immigrant families settle in the city, local campuses are working to address the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. (Photo credit: Toronto District School Board)

International comparisons in education usually focus on the national level—what countries can learn from one another. But a number of cities in North America and East Asia have teamed up to compare notes and share ideas, including on the tough issue of improving educational equity, a challenge faced by urban systems across the globe.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Making Sense of Global Comparisons in Education

Chinese girls in their classroom. Shanghai drew widespread attention for its high test scores on PISA in 2012. Later this year, new results will be released for PISA and another international exam, putting a spotlight once again on how the achievement of dozens of countries and education systems compare. (Flickr/Brian Yap)

Nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. first got a snapshot of how its students compare with their peers in other countries based on a standardized test. The news was sobering.

“Look towards the bottom of this list, and see the U.S. coming in 11th out of 12 [industrialized] countries” in math, said Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, pointing to a chart he presented last month at an Education Writers Association seminar in Washington, D.C. “Only Sweden scored below the U.S.”