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Learning from the top educational systems around the world

Comparison of Academic Achievement in Virginia with Leading Industrialized Countries

The Virginia General Assembly's Commission on Youth, at its April 5, 2011, meeting approved a two-year plan to study how Virginia students compare academically to students in top tier countries around the world. The Commission on Youth contracted with Drs. James Stronge and Patricia Popp at the School of Education, the College of William and Mary, to lead this study and identify positive educational policies and practices in top performing countries for further study to determine the feasibility of adoption by Virginia. This study originated from legislation introduced during the 2011 General Assembly Session by Senator Yvonne B. Miller (Senate Joint Resolution 320) and continued under the leadership of House Delegate Chris Peace. See Richmond Times-Dispatch article, "Quality Systems Start with Good Teachers".

Drs. Stronge and Popp have completed the study activities in the two-year plan. With the assistance of Dr. Xianxuan Xu, Research Associate in the School of Education at William and Mary, and Auggy Kang and Jingzhu Zhang, doctoral students, the international comparison report was developed based on findings from an extensive literature review and analysis of international reports. This Commission on Youth report highlights attributes of top educational systems around the world, including Canada, Finland, Singapore, Shanghai in China, and South Korea. These countries were compared to the United States as a whole, as well as to the state of Virginia when data were available. Data collection included national attributes, educational funding, education system and classroom attributes, and teacher, school leader, and student attributes. This comparison presents teacher and leader quality as two of the key issues that influence student achievement in high performing nations. Stronge and Popp have made numerous presentations on the major findings to the Commission. Their presentations identified features in the education systems of selected countries that rank among the highest on international assessments and that help explain and support academic success. As evidenced in the final report to the Commission, they also noted that one of the most prominent issues restricting greater American education success was the lack of a sufficient pipeline to attract, support, and retain high quality teachers. Popp told the Commission in an early presentation on the project findings, "Typically in the United States, about 45 percent of the teachers graduated in the lowest third of their class."

The top-performing countries which were studied do two things to maintain their high quality teacher workforce: No. 1 - they create incentives and actively recruit the highest caliber students, and maintain a high level of selectivity for individuals entering the teaching profession; and No. 2 - they compensate and value teachers highly relative to other professions in the respective countries. The teacher hiring decision is viewed as extremely important, considering that the hiring of an individual could result in 30 years of either effective or inferior teaching. Only one in ten applicants is accepted to the teacher-training programs in Finland and one in six applicants is accepted in Singapore. Top-performing school systems recruit their teachers from the top third of each cohort who graduate: the top 5% in South Korea, the top 10% in Finland, and the top 30% in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Forty-seven percent of teachers in the United States graduated in the bottom third of their college classes, 30% in the middle third, and only 23% in the top third. Furthermore, in the United States, the teaching profession ranks in the middle range of occupational prestige, well below traditional higher-status professionals such as physicians, engineers, and attorneys. However, competitive high salaries, comprehensive training, and high social status standing make teaching a sought-after career option in nations such as Singapore, South Korea, and Finland.

Year 2 of the study has seen a diverse workgroup established to explore the policies and practices identified in the report and to develop recommendations for implementation of those attributes deemed most appropriate and meaningful for Virginia.  This has resulted in the development of a set of recommendations designed to serve as a framework for Virginia to move forward with substantive improvements in its educational system. Some of the key recommendations include, among a host of substantive ideas, approaches to make teaching and leading more attractive career choices in the state of Virginia, and providing incentives for attracting and retaining the highest quality candidates into teaching and administrative positions.

In the early 1980s, the Commonwealth of Virginia hosted the national meeting on "A Nation at Risk" to reform and strengthen public education. Since that meeting, Virginia education initiatives have included the Standards of Learning, the Virginia Preschool Initiative, the Governor's magnet, charter, virtual, laboratory, and alternative schools, dual enrollment, year-round schools, and career and technical education schools. These initiatives provide options for Virginia students to meet their educational needs and, as a result, significant progress in student achievement has been achieved. Despite progress made to date, public education in Virginia is not immune to the challenges confronting American education. Disregarding the distress signs would be imprudent and pose a significant threat to state economic status and success in the global marketplace. Dr. Stronge stated that "Our recommendations to the Commission on Youth are built upon the excellent work that has occurred over the past decade to strengthen Virginia's educational system. However, we also want to acknowledge that, in order to be competitive on both national and international levels, we can and must embrace substantial reform. What we have achieved to date is insufficient, alone, to take up forward."

In the early 1970s, less than half of students in Singapore reached 4th grade; and in the 1960s, only 1 in 10 adults in Finland completed more than 9 years of basic education. What made a difference in the powerful turnaround in these educational systems? The answer is largely because their government policies began to identify and nurture quality teachers. One of the lessons learned is the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and leaders. The educational reform initiatives in the top-performing Asian tiger countries—Singapore, Shanghai, and South Korea—have become more "American," becoming increasingly learner-centered and focused on high-order thinking. The educational system in the United States needs to stay innovative as has been its history in order to rediscover its competitive edge. 

Virginia needs a cadre of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, educators, physicians, and entrepreneurs, and a steady supply of the brightest minds in all other professions and occupations in the workplace to maintain and improve Virginia's productivity and competitive edge. The 2009 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment indicated that, of the 34 countries evaluated, the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics. The United States falls far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai in China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, about 57% of Virginian 4th graders are not proficient in mathematics when they complete 4th grade, and about 68% of 8th graders do not meet proficient levels when they complete 8th grade. In a major survey conducted by the National Alliance of Manufacturing, when companies asked whether K-12 schools were doing a good job preparing students for the workplace, 84% of the 800 participating companies indicated "no." Employers in many industries lament that job applicants lack the needed mathematics, computer, and problem-solving skills to succeed, and international students fill in an increasing portion of elite STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) positions in the United States. Less than 30% of high school students in the United States report interest in STEM-related majors. In 2007, international students constituted more than a third of the students in United States science and engineering graduate schools, and more than 70 % of those students currently remain in the United States to work after earning their degrees. Stronge stated that, "this inflow of intellectual capacity is certainly a positive finding for America's competitive edge, but we must do better in educating all of our students." In order to expand the number of students who ultimately pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields, the action must start at the K-12 level.