In Pennsylvania, attempts to change education policies or practices are often long, drawn-out slogs.
So what would it take to revolutionize the entire system to compete with top performers in the world?
A new report from the National Council of State Legislatures, a bipartisan think tank, suggests a clear path forward — urging lawmakers to fast-track international best practices in order to improve the United States’ mediocre standings on the world’s education stage.
“What surprised me, and I think them, the most was the consensus that came on some very fundamental principles that have played out very differently in the states,” said Julie Bell, the group’s program director for education policy.
Bell helped write the report with 22 state lawmakers from across the country, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
So what’s the magic formula?
Analyzing best international practices, specifically highlighting Finland, Singapore, and Ontario, the group found a few commonalities of success.
Making sure kids come to 1st grade ready to learn, which could mean providing quality pre-school or giving families extra parental support.
Leading nations also make sure that students who struggle in primary grades, who are often from disadvantaged communities, are given the best teachers and greatest resources — a far stretch from what often occurs in many states, including Pennsylvania.
“If you look at the schools and the demographics of the kids, and then you look at the teachers, you will find high-income kids more likely to be exposed to national board certified teachers, more likely to be exposed to teachers with 20 years experience and a masters degree,” said Delaware State Senator David Sokola, D, a participant in the study group. “These are things that do make a difference.”
No one from Pennsylvania contributed to the report.
The study also stresses the need to rethink the teaching profession. The most successful school systems have much more rigorous entrance criteria for educators, and, in exchange, teachers earn higher salaries and exercise more autonomy.
Teachers are coached and supported by peers and administrators, and student standardized test scores do not factor into their performance evaluations — a practice recently implemented in Pennsylvania.
“We did find, absolutely, that none of the other top performing countries set up an evaluation system for teachers that’s based on those kinds of tests or test scores. None of them do it that way,” said Bell.
The report also says students need the option of a high quality technical education that can still lead to college if students choose.
It also emphasizes the need for states to have a comprehensive vision that eschews any “single bullet” theories of systemic improvement.
“Top-performing countries understand that schools will struggle without high-quality early childhood education, and that high-quality early childhood education will not be a wise investment unless followed by high-quality instruction in the schools,” says the report. “They also understand that increasing teacher pay without rethinking the pool of teaching applicants may be unwise unless preparation programs are more rigorous. Likewise, they realize that a more rigorous program is pointless without creating a more attractive teaching profession.”
NCSL gives these additional examples of ineffective “piecemeal” approaches:
Increasing funding without first shifting funds from unproven strategies
decreasing class size without first restructuring staffing and time
using test scores in teacher evaluations without ensuring that all teachers are receiving job-embedded, high-quality, ongoing learning.
Many U.S. education researchers are reluctant to put too much stock in international comparisons, as leading nations tend to be small and culturally homogenous.
Bell believes that could be a shortsighted view.
“Take a look and see what they’ve done and learn a little bit about it, and find what makes sense for each state,” she said. “Because we’re not making progress now, so something’s gotta change.”
The group is planning a follow-up report to dig deeper into how leading countries turned the political wheels necessary to implement their reforms.