Lessons from High-Performing Countries

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Lessons from High-Performing Countries

Secretary Duncan's Remarks at National Center on Education and the Economy National Symposium

May 24, 2011

I welcome this opportunity to reflect on what the United States can learn from the nations with the best-performing education systems. My thanks to Marc Tucker and the National Center on Education and the Economy for having me here today.

As Marc mentioned, last December, the OECD released a report entitled Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons From PISA for the United States.

I asked OECD to prepare that study for a very simple reason: A number of nations today are out-educating the United States. I wanted to know what the U.S. could learn from the practices of those high-performing and rapidly improving countries. In a globally competitive economy, the value of benchmarking the practices of high-performing education systems seemed like a no-brainer.

These top performing nations not only were doing a better job of accelerating achievement and attainment nationwide than America, they also were doing a better job of closing achievement gaps among minority and disadvantaged students. What were their recipes for success?

As you've just heard, we followed up on the OECD study. At the smart suggestion of Dennis Van Roekel and John Wilson of the NEA, our department co-sponsored in March, along with OECD and Education International, the first-ever International Summit on the Teaching Profession. I was amazed to learn that this kind of summit had never happened before.

Today, I'm here to give a first take on some of what we have learned. I want to give a special shout-out to the Asia Society, which has completed a report on the Summit on behalf of the Summit co-sponsors. That report will be available in the next few weeks.

I would sort the lessons of the OECD study and the International Summit into three baskets.

First, I think it is clear now that most high-performing nations establish a number of common principles and cornerstones to build a strong education system and high-quality teaching profession. Every nation, of course, has unique characteristics of its teaching profession, culture, and education system, which may not be directly analogous to the U.S. But to the extent that the U.S. can copy or adapt, and beg, borrow, and steal, successful practices from other nations, we should do so.

As I'll get to in a moment, I am much more optimistic than Marc that the U.S., including state and local governments, is in the midst of adopting a number of the core elements of high-performing education systems.

In the second basket of lessons are reforms that, while important and invaluable, cannot be easily replicated or exported to the U.S. at a national level.

In the final, or third basket of lessons, I would place educational innovations here in the U.S. that are of considerable interest overseas and may help lead the way to strengthening the education system both here and abroad. The U.S. absolutely has much to learn from other nations. But we can also lead by example in some areas as well.

Let me start with some areas of agreement at the Summit.

Virtually every education minister and union leader who spoke at the Summit affirmed the singular and urgent importance of elevating and strengthening the teaching profession in a knowledge economy. Throughout the globe, education is now recognized as the new game-changer that drives economic growth and social change. And it is great teachers who help build the higher-order skills that students need to succeed in the 21st century.

The overwhelming sentiment at the Summit was that teachers today need to be treated more as professionals and knowledge workers, and less as interchangeable cogs in an educational factory line out of the last century.

Teachers need and deserve more autonomy and respect—and they must become real participants and partners in reform if outcomes for children are to dramatically improve.

A second, shared theme of the summit was that outcomes and data matter. We cannot return to the days when educational policy was primarily propelled by concern with inputs, instead of outcomes. In the information age, student learning and student growth are the ultimate barometers of success. Children are our first and foremost clients.

High-performing nations may differ on how they assess learning. Yet every top performer is using data in one form or another to inform instruction, and to monitor and improve performance. As Michael Gove, the UK education minister, said at the summit, top-performing countries use data to identify what is working in order to "shout it and share it."

Finally, the summit highlighted the importance of one familiar, and one not-so familiar, statement of fact. The familiar sentiment was that a nation's education system can only be as good as the quality of its teachers. But several education ministers and union leaders amended that thought. They added that the quality of a country's teachers can only be as good as the system that recruits, prepares, provides professional development, and compensates teachers.

Contrary to popular wisdom, a top-notch teaching force does not just naturally bloom out of traditions of cultural respect and reverence for teachers. Instead, success stems from coherent, deliberate policy choices, carefully implemented over a period of years.

High-performing education systems pursue a comprehensive set of reforms—not piecemeal, reform-by-addition. They don't push reforms in isolated silos. They commit to system-wide reform.

Now, the International Summit highlighted not just the similarities of high-performing countries but also their differences. There is no single recipe for building a strong teaching profession. It is not that easy. And it is clear that some of the nationwide reforms adopted in high-performing education systems are not likely to be adopted nationwide in the United States.

As Marc Tucker points out in his paper, nearly all of the high-performing nations and regions in the OECD study have national standards, a national curriculum, a grade-by-grade curriculum framework, and high-stakes national exams given to students at key gateways, like exiting secondary school.

In his concluding remarks at the Summit, Gene Wilhoit, the extraordinary leader of the chief state school officers, pointed out that the United States has an unusual confederated education system. The federal government plays a very different role in the U.S. than in many countries, including Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Finland.

The tradition of local control and local financing is much stronger here than in most top-performing countries and provinces. The federal government does not set national standards. We have not and will not prescribe a national curriculum—and in fact we are barred by law from doing so.

And the fact that schools in the U.S. are funded in significant measure out of local property taxes makes it more challenging, on a national basis, to direct extra resources to low-income students and the communities that most need support.

In the U.S., the primary federal roles are to incentivize reform and innovation, enhance equity in educational access and outcomes, and protect the rights of disadvantaged children, minority students, English-language learners, and disabled students.

Our department also helps to document and share effective practices and provides technical assistance. We support states, districts, and 14,000 school boards. As Marc Tucker accurately describes in his paper, "two centuries of practice have vested a great deal of authority in local boards of education [in the United States] to a degree that has no parallel in most other countries."

In addition to having unusual governance challenges, the U.S. also faces questions of scale when it comes to copying or adapting the practices of high-performing countries. Many of the high-performing countries and regions are much smaller than the U.S.

I was excited to hear at the Summit about how Finland has built a high-quality system for recruiting, preparing and training teachers, with agreed-upon goals of what teachers are expected to know and be able to do in specific subject areas.

Finland's strong teacher unions contribute to building a top-notch teaching profession by serving as professional organizations that train and develop teachers. They have evolved far beyond the traditional adversarial focus on bread and butter issues to build trusting but tough-minded partnerships with management.

They have retained their role to speak truth to power—yet accepted fully the responsibility for quality and professional accountability to one another.

Educators and teacher preparation programs here in the United States have so much to learn from Finland's example in all of these areas. The United States must do everything in its power to make sure teachers receive world-class preparation for the classroom and are recruited from the most able students with a gift and passion for teaching. In Finland, that mean the top 10 percent of college graduates enter the teaching profession.

Yet transforming teacher preparation programs in the U.S. along the lines of Finland's example is more challenging here than in a small nation or province. Finland has a total of eight university-based teacher preparation programs. The United States has more than 1,400 education schools, regulated by 50 states and voluntary accreditation bodies.

Professional development for teachers in the U.S. is similarly fragmented. Particularly in tough economic times like today, I lose a lot of sleep when I think about our results in this area. We spend at least $4 billion every year in federal funds on professional development—and don't have good results to show for it. When I talk to great teachers across the country, they are stunned by this number—and by how little this investment has benefitted them or their colleagues. The Summit similarly highlighted that Finland has done an extraordinary job of narrowing achievement gaps. Again, American educators have a lot to learn from the Finns about how to get the best teachers and principals in front of the students who most need their help. But it is worth noting that less than five percent of children in Finland are poor. In the United States, more than 20 percent of children live in poverty, and the population is roughly sixty times as large.

Now, none of these differences mean that the practices of high-performing education systems are irrelevant to the United States—far from it. The implication is rather that these practices have to be adapted to fit America's unique governance structure and traditions. In some instances, successful models from Singapore, Hong Kong, or Finland can also be adopted at an equivalent scale, at the state or district level.

Here, I am going to respectfully disagree with Marc's conclusion that "the strategies driving the best-performing systems are rarely found in the United States."

He asserts in his paper for this conference that leading education reforms underway in the U.S. are conspicuously absent from the best-performing countries.

It's true that the United States has not adopted a national curriculum or launched copycat versions of Finland's teacher preparation programs, Singapore's professional development system, or Japan's tradition of lesson study. But, for the first time, the U.S. today is embracing a number of core elements of high-performing nations.

Three developments mark a dramatic sea-change in the United States.

The first is the state-led design and adoption of higher, internationally benchmarked academic standards—and the development of a new generation of assessments that will test higher-order thinking skills, much like the high-quality assessments used overseas.

The states' development and adoption of the Common Core Standards is a profound shift in American education that almost most none of the education experts thought possible just two years ago. For the first time, states have set a higher, shared standard for success that shows whether students are college and career-ready.

Our team clearly understands that better standards and assessments, while vital, do not guarantee high-quality instruction. So in our fiscal 2012 budget, we have requested $836 million in funding to support states and districts to build high-quality instruction systems around the new standards and in all content areas—including literacy, arts, foreign languages, and the STEM disciplines.

The second development consistent with the strategies of high-performing countries is the $4 billion Race to the Top competition.

For the first time, states today are deeply engaged in coherent, coordinated, and comprehensive reform. In 46 states and the District of Columbia, labor unions, school superintendents, governors, and school board members worked together to design bold blueprints for change. Even states that did not win RTT awards now have a comprehensive roadmap for reform—and many of them are continuing to move forward with real urgency and courage.

Finally, the Administration's $4 billion school turnaround program is an unprecedented effort to redirect resources to the neediest students and correct the imbalance that had made the U.S. one of only a handful of countries that target greater resources toward the lowest-need students.

Marc's paper asserts that the current reforms to America's education system are largely at odds with the strategies of high-performing nations. He concludes—and I quote—that "analysts of the OECD PISA data have [not] found any evidence that any country that leads the world's education performance league tables has gotten there by implementing any of the major agenda items that dominate the education reform agenda in the United States."

It is a sweeping statement. And with all due respect, I did not read the OECD Strong Performers report on the lessons of PISA the same way.

The OECD report stated that a "pillar of reform" in high-performing countries, "the development of internationally benchmarked educational standards by states, is [now] well advanced [in the United States] for the fields of language and mathematics."

The OECD report also concluded that "virtually every country featured in this volume mirrors Race to the Top's effort to support the recruitment, development, rewarding, and retaining of effective teachers and principals."

These are important affirmations that the U.S. is on the same track as other high-performing nations. Clearly, our education system is not as far down the track as those of top performers, nor are we anywhere near where we need to be to win the race for the future. But we are not off-track, or chugging down an abandoned spur line.

In fact, at the Summit, many high-performing systems reported that, like the U.S., they too are utilizing bonuses, scholarships, and salary supplements to reward great teaching, and to attract and keep great teachers in hard-to-staff schools or shortage areas.

Singapore's Senior Minister of State reported that upwards of 30 percent of Singapore's teachers get performance-based bonuses. His counterparts in Japan and China said that the central governments there pay up to one third of the salaries of teachers in poorer or rural areas to promote effective teaching in hard-to-serve schools.

As I said earlier, I am committed to benchmarking the practices and performance of top-performing countries because it can help America accelerate achievement and elevate the teaching profession. I am convinced that education leaders can better boost student learning by working together and sharing best practices, than by working alone.

Here is a quick example: Our Administration has launched TEACH, a teacher recruitment campaign, to bring new college graduates and career-changers into teaching, and also to enhance public perceptions of the teaching profession.

We are looking to attract more applicants from the top third of college graduates and to build a much more diverse teaching force that better reflects the wonderful diversity of our nation's students. The lack of creativity, innovation, or even simple interest in this at many schools of education troubles me greatly. TEACH draws directly on lessons learned in England's highly successful teacher recruitment campaign during the Blair administration.

Look beyond the national level in the U.S., and you will see that states and districts are using Race to the Top dollars to similarly fund innovations that mirror the practices of high-performing provinces and cities.

In Florida, the vast Hillsborough County school system is using some of the state's $700 million RTT grant to apply the lesson study method developed by Japanese educators to stimulate more collaboration and professional development around instruction. Dozens of districts in Florida now use some form of lesson study.

In Maryland, educators are using part of the state's $250 million RTT award to provide a rich, well-rounded curriculum. They are supporting both the development of a new elementary-teaching certificate in the STEM disciplines, and expanding schools' use of world languages, including Arabic, Chinese, and Hindi.

Here in D.C., the district is using RTT funds to launch a collaborative, professional learning community to assist struggling schools. Teachers at high-achieving schools will help teachers at low-achieving schools to adopt best practices, strengthen STEM education, and propel overage students to graduation and not into the streets.

The District anticipates that the Professional Learning Communities for Effectiveness program, known as PLaCEs, will reach 11 schools and 4,400 students in the 2013-14 school year. It is similar to the program that Shanghai officials described at the International Summit, where master teachers at high-achieving schools rotate and share curriculum material with teachers in poorer or rural parts of the province.

One of the most striking aspects of the International Summit was that none of the Education ministers and union leaders from high-performing countries seemed content to rest on their laurels. They talked about shared challenges to the teaching profession, including a shortage of men in the classroom, the need to boost diversity, and the poor quality of professional development at one-off conferences.

Japan was concerned about a looming teacher shortage; Brazil and Chinese officials worried about getting effective teachers in rural schools. No one seemed content with singular silver bullets, like reducing class size or boosting teacher pay. The consensus was that good compensation was a necessary yet not sufficient precondition to attracting top talent to the teaching profession.

All of this brings me to my third and final basket of lessons, the areas in which the United States may help pioneer effective strategies for accelerating achievement and attainment.

As I noted earlier, one of the overarching messages of the Summit was that teachers must be treated more as professionals.

Lockstep compensation systems that take no account of teacher impact on student learning or invaluable service in high-need schools and underserved communities don't do enough to treat teachers as professionals.

My friend Randi Weingarten has pointed out that high-performing countries not only out-educate America, they out-prepare and out-respect us.

I agree. And I don't believe it is a sign of respect today to treat teachers as interchangeable widgets in an education assembly line, distinguished only by their longevity in the job and their educational credentials.

The U.S., led by courageous union leaders like Randi and Dennis Van Roekel, is helping lead the way to a better-differentiated pay and teacher evaluation systems. We have to do much more both to reward teachers for their accomplishments in the classroom and to assist struggling teachers who need help.

Our Department, along with the AFT and NEA, sponsored an unprecedented conference on labor management collaboration in Denver in February. School board presidents, superintendents, and union leaders from 150 districts attended—and we had a waiting list of another 100 districts.

That unusual conference was all about rethinking the labor-management relationship, which in far too many districts is adversarial and dysfunctional. It was all about sharing best practices and using the collective bargaining process itself to increase student achievement—a dozen courageous, reform-minded districts presented how they have done exactly that.

In the paper he prepared for today's conference, Marc Tucker makes a similar argument about the likely trajectory of labor-management relations.

He suggests that changes in the teaching profession will push union leaders and public officials in high-achieving countries to move beyond the blue-collar, step-and-lane pay scales of the last century. More and more, teachers will and should be treated like highly-skilled professionals.

In exchange for the kind of professional responsibility and autonomy that other professions enjoy, he suggests that teachers will one day embrace what I would describe as a kind of grand bargain.

Teachers will enjoy more autonomy and professional responsibility, and more generous and differentiated pay for superior performance, in exchange for which they will give up blue-collar-like seniority rights of assignment and retention.

I do not know what the future holds for union contracts. But I am confident that tough-minded collaboration between labor and management is likely to do more to advance the teaching profession than tough-minded confrontation.

I am more convinced of that than ever—after attending the International Summit, and hearing the stories of the leaders of high-performing education systems from provinces and countries like Ontario and Norway.

I am confident as well that student growth in learning will play a bigger role in teacher evaluation in the future, and that the U.S. will continue to be a pioneer in the field.

A number of education ministers and union leaders expressed their objection at the Summit to teachers being evaluated based on test scores alone, on a one-day, fill-in-the bubble test of math or reading skills. They are absolutely right. As I have said repeatedly, every teacher and every school should be evaluated on multiple indicators. Again, in professional practice, that is the norm, not the exception.

Teachers are entitled to a review by trained observers against a clear rubric of what effective teaching looks like—and to feedback about their practice. Teacher evaluations might also include peer, parent, or student surveys on teacher practice and a consideration of a teacher's broader contribution to the school community.

Yet schools systems cannot continue to disconnect student achievement and growth from evaluations of teacher performance. It makes no sense—it demeans the extraordinary contributions of good teachers. Most important, it is bad for students. I believe the U.S. can help lead this exploration.

In the end, it is enormously encouraging that the status of the teaching profession is not immutable, fixed by economic and cultural tradition. The wonderful progress that nations like Finland and Singapore have made in boosting achievement and attainment in recent decades is a dramatic affirmation of the power of government policy to change the education system for the better. Remember that in the early 1970s, less than half of Singapore's students even reached fourth grade. Today, Singapore ranks near the top of the PISA assessments.

Here in America, we know that education must be the great equalizer. It is the one force that can consistently overcome differences in background, culture, and privilege.

And nothing—nothing—is more important to realizing that promise than great teachers. They literally change the course of students' lives.

Great teachers are vital to the future of our children and society. We have to celebrate them, reward them, and learn from them—and let them know how proud and thankful we are for their tireless dedication and commitment. And we must build the systems of support that make great teaching and a powerful teaching profession possible.

In Singapore and South Korea, teachers are thought of as nation-builders. I believe that America's teachers are nation builders, too.

And I hope you will join me in celebrating them as the country's educational leaders look, listen, and learn from the success of high-performing nations.