The Global Context for Education


The Global Context for Education

Interest has mounted 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.

Interest has mounted 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 was released from a pair of major international assessments best known by the acronyms PISA and TIMSS. PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, tests 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science. TIMSS tests fourth and eighth graders in math and science.

On the high-profile PISA exam, U.S. scores in reading and science were about the same as three years earlier, leaving Americans near the middle of the pack. Results were lower in math when compared with 2012, placing the U.S. near the bottom of 35 industrialized nations. Singapore was the top performer in all three subject areas. The sobering news about U.S. achievement once again sparked headlines around the country, as well as public statements from political and education leaders.

Meanwhile, on TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), the nation’s 4th graders scored in the top quarter of all participating countries in those two subjects, as Education Week reported. However, they showed no improvement since 2011, when TIMSS was last held. U.S. 8th graders performed in the top quarter of countries in math and science. The 8th graders saw significant improvements in math, but not in science, since 2011.

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. The data from TIMSS and PIRLS (last administered in 2011) reflect more positively on U.S. achievement on the global stage, even as they also point to some reasons for concern.

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 is the much smaller proportion of high-achievers in the United States, when compared with nations such as South Korea and Singapore. 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, both Massachusetts and North Carolina opted to get separately reported results on the most recent PISA exam. Meanwhile, Florida got such results on TIMSS in the latest round. 

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, now available is the OECD 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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National Seminar graphic

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EWA 74th National Seminar  graphic

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EWA 71st National Seminar Los Angeles graphic

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