Education Ideas We Should Steal From Other Countries

Thursday, October 16, 2014 -- Scott Sterling

Once a year or so, the mainstream media likes to remind us that we are falling behind countries like Singapore, Taiwan, and Finland when it comes to education. Although our country is undergoing some of the most transformative education reforms in its history, we’ve somehow missed some of the best things that the other countries do.

Some of these differences are sociological and cannot be easily implemented here. But most of them are pedagogical or policies that just take the will to reform our system for the better.

Conceptualization is the key

It’s estimated that only 2 percent of American students can creatively use math knowledge, taking it from memorization to conceptualization. In Shanghai, that number is 30 percent. Most of the new standards in the country call for that kind of thinking in the classroom, but don’t necessarily provide how that should be accomplished. More professional development and mentoring would be a great first step.

Instead of more, less class

Finland is a country that often appears near the top of international education success lists. They also spend the least amount of time in the classroom of any other high-performing country, only 600 hours per year. Most countries are north of 1,000. The extra time is spent on collaboration and individual study on the part of the students and lesson planning and teaming on the part of teachers. Successful lessons don’t just fall out of the sky; teachers need more time to perfect them.

More breaks

A couple of decades ago, schools that operated year-round were a hot fad that died a quick death when everyone, especially parents, realized how inconvenient that schedule could be. It wasn’t a terrible idea in theory. They just underestimated how important summer is to many aspects of our economy and society. In New Zealand, students attend school for four equal terms with two-week breaks in between, as well as a six-week summer vacation. That could be a good balance while also giving students more rest during the year.

Better teaming among schools

We treat schools as individual pods. If one is failing, it’s not the business of the other ones. Instead, in most states, the Department of Education comes in and cleans house. In contrast, Shanghai’s high performing schools are actually responsible for reforming schools that are struggling. The better school shares its administration and teachers with the struggling school.

And, of course, more money

You can’t talk about the struggles of our education system without talking about money. In the US, 2 percent of the federal budget goes to education; 19 percent to defense. In Singapore, 20 percent of the budget is spent on education. There, teachers make more than lawyers and engineers. Singapore is a tiny country with many partners that help them militarily, but it still reflects the country’s priorities.