Regular readers of this blog (and my other writings) know that I am a big fan of international benchmarking – a business-borrowed approach of studying the practices of high performing global systems, and the considering how those can be implemented in our context.
This week, I was honored to give the keynote talk at Meiklejohn Elementary’s Parent University, a one-night event where parents got to do a deep dive into education.
I always try to leave the majority of my time for conversation, where the size of the audience allows it. This night, I gave a sneak peek into the emerging new vision for Jeffco Public Schools, gave the participants time to discuss with each other, and then talk with me.
There were lots of great questions and comments, but one was particularly interesting from a benchmarking standpoint.
A parent who grew up in China (Beijing) asked why wouldn’t we have more emphasis put on testing and ranking students. She noted that in China, a great deal of pressure is put on students to achieve and do well on these assessments, and that their futures were often dependent on the results on the tests. Her experience in the United States was that, while her student’s school (Meiklejohn) did well on assessments, there was much less emphasis on the tests.
Author Amanda Ripley wrote a wonderful book on comparative education systems a few years ago, profiling the experiences of American students who studied as exchange students in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. In it, she noted the different approaches used in these systems, which had all led to high or dramatically improved results on the international PISA exam, a test given to 15 year-old students all over the world. Ripley touched on the commitment to high and challenging academic standards present in the Asian systems, the commitment to a quality foundation of education and equity in Poland, and the focus on human experience and nurturing found in the Finnish system.
In reflecting on the Meiklejohn parent’s question, it occurs to me that we want all of the best things these systems have to offer. We do need a well articulated, challenging, and aligned set of content standards with an accompanying curriculum. We learn the importance of this from the Asian systems.
We also want the commitment to equity, making sure that all students have an opportunity to succeed, present in most international high performers. Systems are not excellent unless their most disadvantaged students are also succeeding.
And, we want to nurture the human experience for our children, preserving their curiosity, imagination, and individual aspirations.
The system in the United States has failed at focusing on any of these elements very well. We attempted to raise academic expectations by putting in place the most comprehensive system of tests and accountability in the world, without actually making the necessary changes to the curriculum and the supports for the educators necessary to execute it.
The U.S. has an abysmal record when it comes to equity and the performance of our students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We’ve put many of our eggs in the school-choice basket as a possible remedy to this issue. While school-choice has brought many positives and is part of our public education fabric, it has also exacerbated some of the school segregation and resource allocation issues which have contributed to our equity problems.
And, as we have moved our focus more into testing and accountability on academic dimensions, we may simultaneously moved away from what may have been the greatest strength of the American system – imagination and ingenuity.
Public education in the United States educates about 90% of the citizens in this country. The United States has the largest and most stable economy, the most innovative citizenry (as measured by patents), the most powerful and agile military, by far the most Nobel-prize winners, and 15 of the top 20 universities in the world are in the United States. There are lots of factors that go into these kinds of systems outcomes, but public education in the United States, as a major component in the creation of human capital, is an important contributor.
So, what to make of all this? I believe there are important lessons to learn from all these successes and they spell out a recipe for best practices when it comes to education.
We should have an aligned curricular system, built on high academic standards. We should also have a deep commitment to equity, and intentional systems that support each child in being successful. And, we should work to preserve beautiful diversity of human talents, abilities, and aspirations that are so clearly present in our young people.
Enacting a systems-change built on the best ideas from all worlds requires an agile mentality. This is difficult when the human brain so readily turns things into red vs. blue, this vs. that, us vs. them frames. However, I think holding and balancing all these concepts simultaneously will be necessary to genuinely maximize our potential as an education system, and as human beings.