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Can U.S. schools adopt education practices of top-performing nations?

In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011, Lindsay Ehlers teaches math to her fourth grade class at Liberty Lake Elementary School in Liberty Lake Washington.
In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011, Lindsay Ehlers teaches math to her fourth grade class at Liberty Lake Elementary School in Liberty Lake Washington.
Nick Geranios, Associated Press

Beverly Hills, California is famous for many things, not the least of which is its public schools. The Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) is one of the top performing districts in California, and the country. In recent state and national reading and math assessments, the district's students scored in the 80th percentile.

BHUSD students' performance on international assessments is less than impressive. Its students rank in the 53 percentile in mathematics and reading when compared to countries such as Finland, China, Korea and Canada. Poor performance on international exams isn't just a problem in Beverly Hills. Although Americans spend 50 percent more on education than other industrialized nations, they score 23rd in science, 17th in reading and 31st in mathematics of a total of 34 nations, according to data collected by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based group that conducts international education comparisons.

American students' lackluster performance on international exams raises concern among economists and policymakers who argue that the U.S. needs to raise its grades or risk economic stagnation. "It is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow," said President Obama at a White House event last September. Obama's statement is based on the idea that "a greater amount of of educational attainment indicates more skilled and more productive workers, who in turn increase the economy's output of goods and services," said Robert Barro, professor of economics at Harvard University.

In the last ten years, attempts to improve American education have focused on teacher accountability through the high stakes testing mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This strategy appears to have had little impact on student performance, however. Since NCLB was implemented in 2002, American performance has actually decreased. American students ranked 18th in mathematics in 2000 but fell to 31st place in 2009, according to OECD data.

Increasingly there is a push to ditch high stakes testing in favor of the educational strategies used by top performing countries. "To the extent that the U.S. can copy or adapt, and beg, borrow and steal successful practice from other nations, we should do so," said Secretary of education Arne Duncan at an event sponsored by the National Center on Education and Economy in Washington in 2011.

While different countries have different approaches to and attitudes about education, there are things that all high performing countries do. Two of these are paying teachers well and keeping students in school longer.

Some object to these proposals on the basis of cost: adding more school days and paying teachers more will cost states money they don't have. Other objections to the idea of borrowing the practices of other countries are more philosophical. Americans have different cultural values from many top performing countries which may limit the transferability of their techniques, according to James Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA.

Teach like a champion

Top performing countries share particular attitudes and characteristics, according to U.N. education analyst Edward Fiske. First among these is a national commitment to education, said Fiske. National commitment to education manifests in the way nations recruit and pay teachers, UCLA's Stigler says.

Unlike American teachers who come from the bottom 30 percent of their university classes, in Finland admission to education programs is competitive. Successful completion of a teacher training course is no guarantee of a job, however. There is under a 10 percent acceptance rate into the profession. The situation is similar in Korea. Elementary education majors are recruited from the top 5 percent of their high school classes, according to the Center for International Benchmarking in Education. Moreover, only 30 percent of secondary school teaching candidates in Korea are able to find jobs.

Difficulty getting a foot in the door adds to the prestige of the profession, but high pay is what attracts the best candidates. In all these countries teachers are also well compensated. American teachers make 97 percent of per capita GDP, whereas Finnish teachers make 110 percent. In a country with an extensive social services, this means that the average Finnish teachers purchasing power is well above average for discretionary purchases. Canadian teachers make 180 percent of per capital GDP, Japanese teachers 140 percent and Korean teachers a whopping 225 percent, according to data from OCED.

Not only are teachers in other countries better compensated, they work less. American teachers work an average of 1100 hours according to OCED data. By contrast teachers in Finland work about 600 hours, in Korea they average 550 hours. These factors combine to make teaching an attractive profession for high achievers.

Time to learn

Another shared characteristic of top performing nations is the amount of time their students spend in school. American students spend 180 days in school compared to the 243 days Japanese students spend in classes. Korean students aren't far behind spending 220 days in school while the Finns have 190 instructional days.

A growing body of research provides strong evidence of a positive correlation between test scores and time in class. Several prominent American policy makers, notably US education secretary Arne Duncan, suggest American students are falling behind their global competitors because they don't spend enough time in school. "Right now children in India, children in China and other places, they're going to school, 30, 35 days more than our students. If you are on a sports team and you're practicing three days a week and the other team is practicing five days a week, who is going to win more?" he asked at a September 2011 round-table discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress.

One of the arguments used by opponents of extended time in school, and increased teacher pay for that matter, is that it costs too much. While that may be true it is interesting to note that all of these countries are able to make it work on much less than the United States spends on education. In Canada they spend $7,770 per student. In Finland it is $9,500 per student. Korea spends $7,500 per student and Japan spends $9,800.

Apples and oranges

If other countries have it figured out, why are American schools slow to adopt their techniques? A major concern is that the "best practices" of other countries aren't transferable to the American system. "Education policies and practices are closely tied to national cultures, which can differ in fundamental ways," wrote United Nations education analyst Edward Fiske in a report for Education Week. A major point of difference between American schools and their Asian counterparts is on the question of expectations, according to Stigler, the professor of psychology at UCLA. Japanese teachers, for example, let students struggle with problems before providing assistance. While American parents' reaction to this technique would be to complain about lack of instruction, Japanese parents are likely to thank the teacher for helping their child learn to persist, according to Stigler. "[Americans] are socialized to put up their hands and say, 'I don't know,'" said Stigler.

A point of difference between the Unites States and Finland is on commitment to the principle of equality. "We never used excellence as a driver of education reform," said Pasi Sahlberg, author of of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? "We wanted equity and equality … We don't measure schools so we don't say this is a bad school or this is a good school is terms of funding. All funding is based on need," she said. In their effort to provide children with an even playing field Finnish schools provide students with three daily meals, health care, and ample time off.

Another problem is that there is disagreement on what techniques cause better outcomes. More time in school may cause higher scores but it is just as likely that another "There is no scientific method to identify the critical features of success in the best practices approach" said Jay Greene, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. "We simply have to trust the [experts] that they have correctly identified the relevant factors and have properly perceived the causal relationships," he said. James Stigler of UCLA agrees. You can't take one element or variable out of a system [there] and expect it to work [here]," he said. "We need to understand how different countries are producing results, but we need to be sophisticated in how we interpret those results."