Monday, February 13, 2012

Switzerland Has the World's Best Educational System

Under my revised criteria (justified in my most recent three posts, which built on work I began last summer), Switzerland has the world's best educational system, the model I would use as a basis for reforming America's. Looked at in light of the six criteria I am now using for making such estimates, it has good (though not outstanding) average attainment, with the average child just starting school this year projected to be a degree holder 15-16 years from now (this trend is true of many countries in the world, and Switzerland is only in the top 25 or so of all educational jurisdictions in average attainment); it has above average PISA scores, so it is likely that most Swiss students are making credible progress during their years in school; its special needs students are the most likely to be employed of any jurisdiction's I've found; it has the highest ranked university outside of the English-speaking world in ETH Zurich, with free university education for all Swiss Matura holders in a higher education system highly attractive to non-Swiss students; employers rank it second only to Finland when it comes to providing a labour pool appropriate for a highly competitive economy; and it has a solid record in providing for the general well-being of children growing up in the country.

While it is far from the only educational system the United States might learn from -- Canada and Australia also look very competitive under this analysis -- Switzerland provides an excellent model for any analysts looking for reform lessons from abroad, and that is why its omission from study by the Center on International Education Benchmarking, which appropriately identifies most other leading systems and is such a promising venture in other respects, is a surprising omission that we can only hope will be rectified.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

But Are Young People Happy?

Continuing from my previous post, I was unsatisfied after adding this fifth criterion, which considers the various educational systems' abilities to feed modern economies, fundamentally because I know that there is more to life than economics, and I felt that the various criteria (average student attainment, achievement, unemployment rates for special needs students, research university rankings, and workforce supply) probably gave too much emphasis to economic considerations. I consider the noblest of educational aims to be enlightenment, as sought for example in Zen monasteries and similar religious institutions; yet I do not see how to measure that or work it into a procedure for educational system rankings; but I do know that education, while the major concern of our children's upbringing, is not coextensive with it: there is more to life, and to growing up, than education. I have seen close up at least one culture (South Korea's) where education plays such a large role in the lives of the young as to be oppressive, at least in the most extreme families. So I went back to some old research I had seen, which claimed (about five years ago) that Dutch teens were the happiest in the world, read updated and improved research related to this topic (child well-being, broadly considered) from the OECD, and adjusted my informal assessments of the various systems according to this criterion as well, that is, to how well a nation's (or state's, or any other appropriately sovereign educational jurisdiction's) educational system fits into what is, overall, a happy, safe, and effective upbringing of the young.

In my next post I will reveal the educational jurisdiction that provides the best overall system in the world, according to these six criteria.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

We Should Leave No Child Behind While Racing to Multiple Mountaintops

Continuing from my last blog post, one of the most valuable insights I gained from Surpassing Shanghai is crystallized in this quote from Tharman Shanmugaratnam, one-time education minister of Singapore: "We need a mountain range of excellence, not just one peak and inspire all our young to find their passions and climb as far as they can" (119). 

The educational metric associated with this philosophy, which is one of two new criteria I have added to my previous thinking in ranking educational systems, is found earlier in the same chapter of the same book: on page 113, Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society refers to the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook's ranking of educational systems based on their ability to provide a local workforce that can supply a globally competitive economy. I realized that this was something I had been looking for: my previous work had multiplied attainment by achievement to get some sense of how well educated the average products of the various educational systems are, and then had gone on to consider how the least and most advantaged students in such systems were faring after emerging from their respective systems. But what I wanted, and what the IMD figures supply in a semi-satisfactory manner, was some way of judging the capacities of the various systems in supporting multiple pathways for students, since not all students will thrive in any single lockstep march to a predetermined "top" that all are supposed to strive for (a phenomenon I witnessed firsthand in Korea in the 1990s, when the dream of practically all students, predetermined by their parents, was to get into Seoul National University), and since the most competitive modern economies are by definition the most diverse, and need a broad variety of highly developed skills to plug into the huge variety of entry points they provide. So this is another reason for me to be glad to have read Surpassing Shanghai.

Incidentally, the current IMD Yearbook lists Finland, Switzerland, Singapore, Canada, Iceland, and Australia as best providing a highly competitive workforce for modern companies, so I adjusted my informal assessments of the various systems accordingly.

But I was not satisfied, and added one additional criterion to assessing the systems, which I will discuss in my next post.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

We Need Broader Criteria to Properly "Surpass Shanghai"

For Christmas, I gave myself (since no one else gave it to me, or even a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble, which is unusual for me) Marc Tucker's Surpassing Shanghai, a stimulating proposal for remaking American education by means of adapting the best practices of competing educational systems around the world. Since I have devoted years to designing a single school (One World Secondary) to be the flagship of a system that could achieve exactly what this book proposes, I was naturally interested; and since Mr. Tucker edited the National Commission on Education and the Economy's 2006 book Tough Choices or Tough Times (we now have the latter since we didn't make the former), which has had continuing influence on my school's design (for example, our teachers' compensation plan is based on the book's salary scale on page 103), my interest was all the greater. I finished the book a few days ago, and would like to briefly review it by focusing on its information sources and the criteria it proposes to rate education systems.

I appreciate the work of almost everyone advocating education policy, since I think almost everyone, including those who disagree with me, has the best interests of the young at heart. In addition, I found this book very valuable because of the detailed look at five systems (those of Shanghai, Finland, Japan, Singapore, and Canada) it provides, and in particular that of Shanghai, which until now has been very little studied. Nonetheless, when I saw the educational systems it had chosen to focus on and compared it with my own previous conclusions about top systems (published on this website last year), I suspected something was amiss; and when I saw that the report that formed the book's basis had been commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to help Secretary Duncan prepare for a meeting of top education ministers in conjunction with an examination of the most recent PISA results, I knew we were in trouble, for it seemed likely that PISA director Andreas Schleicher's familiar talking points would be swallowed hook, line, and sinker, without enough critical examination of some of his main contentions; and this is what I found to be generally true in this book, and the book's great weakness.

The biggest single problem here in Surpassing Shanghai is its failure to consider attainment along with achievement in judging systems. In short, young people do not stop learning at 15 -- very few students in the OECD exit the system at that point -- and what matters to me as a citizen is how well educated my fellow citizens are who are passing me on the sidewalk, and that phenomenon is better measured by attainment (here meaning the number of years in school successfully completed) than by achievement at age 15, which is what PISA measures. Largely for this reason, as well as others that I detailed in previous blog entries, I rated Norway's educational system above Finland's, unlike almost all other commentators, since Norway's attainment is over two years beyond Finland's, which means that, when comparing young adults, we should in reality be comparing the average young Norwegian with 13 years of schooling with the average young Finn with only 10 (Finland is currently closing this gap, it should be noted, and its expected years of schooling for students just entering the system today is now almost as long as Norway's). This fact, along with the fact that the average young special needs student exiting the Norwegian system has a much better chance of finding employment than the average young Finn in the same situation (which statistic I used as a proxy for how well the various systems treat their least advantaged students), led me to put Norway on top, while I regarded Finland's as merely one of the best.

But Mr. Tucker's book did help me reconsider some things, which led me to broaden my criteria for assessing educational systems and has led to some new findings, which I will discuss in my next entry.