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March 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 6

Where in the World Are World-Class Standards?

Countries known for their outstanding students have several practices in common; clear, consistent, demanding public education standards head the list.

A current television ad portrays a neatly dressed young girl walking into a middle school classroom, a pile of books cradled in her arms. With a pleasant voice, the teacher calls roll. The scene is genial and familiar, until we notice that there is only one long row of chairs, and that the names being called are the names of countries: “Taiwan, Korea, Switzerland....” As the girl takes her place in the very last seat, the teacher intones ominously, “the United States of America.”
The ad expresses our national concern over how well U.S. students are doing in school. Readers of an article on international standards typically expect a similarly gloomy perspective, buttressed with handy charts comparing students from around the world. Because the international standing of U.S. children is well-known, we will spare you another such chart. Instead, we want to look at countries known for producing high-performing students to discover why these school systems look so good on the honor roll of nations.

Documents Don't Tell the Story

At a recent forum on 21st century education, a co-panelist asked us to send him a copy of the world-class standards in education. We had to chuckle; would that it were so easy! If world-class standards were defined and available in the local library's reference section, researchers and policymakers alike would make frequent use of it. Unfortunately, no such volume exists.
In 1993, when the New Standards Project at the University of Pittsburgh began its international benchmarking efforts, we hoped to collect and analyze the standards documents of other countries. We began by concentrating on mathematics, thinking it might suffer less from cultural differences than do other areas.
  • those whose students perform well on international tests (for example, France),
  • those whose education systems enjoy international esteem (for example, the Netherlands),
  • those with a federal structure much like our own (for example, Germany), and
  • those representing major economic competitors of the United States (for example, Japan).
We quickly discovered that standards are not in neat volumes on the shelves of education ministries, but instead arise out of a complex interaction of curriculums, textbooks, exams, classroom practice, and student work.
Moreover, when we sought to compile a library of materials, teachers, both at home and abroad, warned us that documents alone cannot tell the whole standards story. After all, teachers do not teach all and only what is in a textbook. They advised us to (1) find out what happens to kids who do not meet the standards, and (2) look at student work, which is where one really finds out what is expected of students.
  • What is the structure of the education systems in other countries?
  • What are students expected to know and be able to do at key junctures in their schooling careers?
  • What kinds of performances are used to demonstrate competence?
  • What counts as “good enough” in these performances?
  • What percentage of the students is meeting the standards?
  • What reform efforts are under way or on the horizon?
  • There is more than one way to help students achieve excellence.
  • To successfully serve a large number and variety of students, schools must work as systems whose parts are focused on coherent, consistent, publicly articulated goals.
Let's look at mathematics education in Japan, France, and the Netherlands.

Tracking: Results are Mixed

Historically, U.S. schools were among the first to provide secondary schooling for all students. Many argue that this is why the United States fares poorly in international comparisons: while we are committed to the education of all children, other countries practice strict ability tracking that creams off the best students. Hence, our average students are compared with their best students.
In fact, our research shows that things are no longer that simple. Other developed nations have caught up with and even surpassed us in terms of retaining students throughout the years of secondary schooling (Centre for Educational Research and Innovation 1993). Further, tracking practices do not correlate in any straightforward way with high performance internationally. In such comparisons, tracking and achievement appear to be independent of one another.
In practice, U.S. students are often tracked into classes for the gifted and talented, vocational education, and the like. On the other hand, those systems in which students outperform ours include both highly tracked and highly untracked systems.
Tracking is common in the Netherlands, where secondary school students elect one of four levels of study based on both their career goals and their past experience in school. French students are untracked through age 13; thereafter, about 85 percent of students are in a single track. In Japan, there is no tracking throughout the years of compulsory schooling.
In other words, tracking and education's availability to the whole populace cannot by themselves explain away the poor performance of U.S. students on international tests.
We have, however, learned some important lessons while examining tracking.
Japan. Japanese schools prefer heterogeneous grouping because it seems to produce higher performance all around: High performing students actually learn more, it is argued, by serving as tutors to their classmates. Further, a central focus of Japanese schools is to help form the moral and cultural character of students. High performance is valued because it contributes to the well-being of the group. In school, this means that students see their own excellence as compromised by another student's failure! One of the standards for all Japanese students, then, is to be a contributing member of an effective work group.
The Netherlands. Tracking in the Netherlands is not determined by achievement tests, which are a predominant means of sorting students in the United States. In fact, achievement tests are not used in the Netherlands. Instead, secondary students, in consultation with parents, teachers, and—sometimes—school administrators, choose the track that is most appropriate for them.
The major factor in the student's choice of track is his or her career goals, because each of the four tracks in Dutch secondary schools leads to a broad set of careers and levels of specialization. Further, throughout the first two years of secondary school, and in some cases beyond that, students may switch tracks if their goals change. Early on, then, Dutch students have a clear sense that their studies are directly connected with life after school.
A defining characteristic of tracking in Dutch schools is that all students are expected to perform well. Mathematics exams at the conclusion of high school are a case in point: Although students who intend to go on to a university are asked to perform at a more sophisticated level than those who wish to enter the work force, the latter group faces very difficult exams. As Figure 1 shows, these exams involve complex applications of algebra and geometry. Students are also expected to show how they arrived at their answers; there is more than one right way. Dutch educators have been developing a mathematics program geared to helping all students perform well.

(Dutch National Institute for Educational Measurement)
Exercise 4. A swimming pool of 16 x 50 meters has a shallow part A (depth 1 meter) and a deep part C (depth 4 meters). In between, the depth increases regularly from 1 meter to 4 meters. (See the drawing.) All measurements are given in meters. The swimming pool is filled up to the edge.
el199503 resnick fig1
  • Calculate how many m3 of water are in the swimming pool.
On the border between part A and part B is a sign that indicates the depth (see the drawing). The lifeguard wants to put another sign on the edge saynig "depth 1.80 meters."
  • Calculate the distance between the two signs.
The Dutch approach contrasts sharply with that used in the United States today, where educators are hotly debating the relationship between tracking and achievement. Some argue that tracking results in a weak curriculum for students whose work has been weak in the past; others argue that a failure to track means holding back highly motivated students, forcing them into heterogeneous groups with a dumbed-down curriculum.

Curriculums: Common Goals Are Crucial

Many countries whose schools have achieved academic excellence have a national curriculum. Many educators maintain that a single curriculum naturally leads to high performance, but the fact that the United States values local control of schools precludes such a national curriculum. This argument would have us throw in the towel regarding raising achievement.
Our research has shown that national curriculums are a diverse group of documents. Some express the educational philosophy or traditions of the country, while others concentrate on prevailing cultural needs. Some describe teaching strategies or content considered important. Most are very sketchy. They do not detail lesson plans that mandate uniform classroom practice throughout the country.
In Japan, for example, the curriculum includes brief objectives for each grade and content level, and a few specific items that should be mastered. Teachers must and do go far beyond the guidelines. The same is true in France and in the Netherlands.
Still, a centrally articulated set of goals, even if vaguely stated, plays important roles: It organizes the development of exams and curriculums, informs textbook writing, and determines the direction of teacher training. As a result, high-stakes exams, texts, curriculums, and lesson plans do not work at cross-purposes. When all parties involved in these diverse activities have their eyes on the same set of goals, students get a consistent message about what they should know to be well educated.
France. France offers the clearest example of this convergence of goals. In texts and exams, the influence of the national curriculum is obvious. For example, a French math text for 16-year-olds begins by spelling out the national curriculum for the year so that all 16-year-olds know what they are expected to study. The book's similar table of contents shows that the text developers referred to the curriculum. Moreover, the text makes frequent references to math exams the regional school districts have given in the past. Students practice on these exams to help them prepare for the exam they will face; they know where to concentrate to meet the standard.
One could draw a tempting but fallacious inference from these examples. Can simply having a coherent system of curriculums, texts, and exams produce excellent student performance? In fact, coherence is not enough; Sweden offers the counter-example.
Sweden. As in France, the Swedish national curriculum strongly influences texts and exams, giving students a clear message about what is expected. Still, the mathematics exam for Swedish 16-year-olds shows that a clear message, too, can set a low standard (see fig. 2). Unlike its Dutch counterpart, the Swedish exam does not ask for complex mathematical reasoning, but focuses instead on relatively low-skill computation. The lesson here: Unless coherent schooling elements set high academic standards, we can't expect student achievement to rise.

Figure 2. Portion of a Swedish Mathematics Exam for 16-year-olds

(PRIM Group of the School Administration for the Stockholm Teacher Training Institute)

Part B. For exercises 12–15, complete solutions must be given. NOTE! If you only give the answer you will get 0 points.

12. What is the price of a piece of ham weighing 6 hg if the price is 150 krona per kilogram?

13. How much is the telephone bill for a quarter of the year if it shows 300 units of use for that time? Each unit costs 23 Öre. In addition, there is a charge of 187 krona per quarter in subscription fees.

Exams: Upholding Standards

To understand how certain systems produce excellence, we also must find out how students demonstrate what they know and can do. Many countries give an exam at the end of compulsory schooling, at about age 16, and that exam often is the last measure we have of how all students are performing. After this point, not all students are expected to work to high standards.
France. In France, virtually all students attempt to qualify for the Brevet certificate at the end of middle school, and more than 75 percent succeed. This qualification is awarded on two bases: final exams in several subjects, and classroom teachers' continuous assessment during the last two years. The exams differ among the country's 27 regional school districts, but multiple choice is virtually unknown. Students must write essays, argue for positions, and solve problems while giving evidence of their reasoning. Texts and curriculums support these practices. This means that students can prepare for the Brevet, because it reflects the very same skills and knowledge they have been honing in school.
The Netherlands. In the Netherlands, all students take high school leaving exams. The final grade is the average of the exam's two parts: one generated nationally, the other compiled by the school. Dutch schools have four tracks and give four corresponding national exams in most subjects. As in France, multiple-choice and short-answer questions are rare.
U.S. teachers often marvel at these exams that require a lot of writing. “How are they graded?” they want to know. Obviously, with few exceptions, machine grading is impossible. By and large, teachers do it. If selected as graders, they are either freed from other duties for a time, paid a stipend, or both. To be sure grades are given fairly across regions, all scorers receive scoring guides, and auditors check a random sample of scores.
Germany. In Hessen, Germany, however, teachers both compile and grade the exam for their own students. When questioned about the possibility of teachers artificially inflating grades or helping their students cheat, one university professor seemed puzzled. “Why would they cheat,” she asked us, “when they are professionals who care about their work?” This trust in and respect for teachers as professionals is common in countries whose students are noted for excellence.

What We've Learned

  • Setting clear, consistent, demanding, public standards helps students perform well.
  • Tracking and grouping practices must make sense in the culture of the school and for both the student's and community's future goals.
  • Exams should test what students have been asked to learn, preferably in the same ways they must perform in class.
  • Exams that call for complex, demanding tasks can be given to a wide range of students, perhaps to all students.
  • As the front-line professionals in the education process, teachers should have much to say about what goes into exams and how they are graded.
None of these results is surprising. They represent what good teachers in good programs with hard-working students have always done. For the New Standards Project, the good news from international comparisons is that it is possible to set high standards and expect all students to work to achieve them.
One caveat is in order: The route to high performance is not necessarily to simply implement the good practices of other countries. When we aim for world-class standards, we are not aiming at a target that is standing still and waiting for us. Far from it.
Concerns about preparing students for the challenges of work and community in the 21st century are not unique to the United States. The Netherlands continues to stress the development of improved mathematics curriculums as a national priority. Around the world, schools are seeking to improve the technological abilities of all students.
Sweden and France are piloting creative means for teaching children of immigrants. All over the world, in fact, educators are working to improve school services to traditionally —alized groups, including children from low-income families and girls of all economic classes. Issues of equity, or the performance of language, racial, and ethnic minorities are not unique to the United States.
The challenge for the United States is to create a national agenda of excellence that can raise the performance of all students without creating a national exam or curriculum. Each community must adapt the agenda in unique ways that nonetheless work in unison.
The image of a symphony comes to mind: each instrument has its own score, its own qualities, its own goals, but the scores must harmonize if a satisfying performance is to result. Just so with state and local reforms: they must and will vary in ways that make sense to local schools and communities. But they must also share a common vision of the high performance we must expect from all students.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. (1993). Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, p. 116.

Educational Testing Service. (1993). NAEP 1992 Mathematics Report Card for the Nation and the States, IAEP/NAEP Cross-linking Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

McKnight, C., F. Crosswhite, J. Dossey, E. Kifer, J. Swafford, K. Travers, and T. Cooney. (1987). The Underachieving Curriculum: Assessing U.S. School Mathematics from an International Perspective. Champaign, Ill.: Stipes Publishing Company.

End Notes

1 For more on Japanese attitudes toward ability, effort, and grouping, see H. W. Stevenson and J. W. Stigler, (1992), The Learning Gap, (New York: Summit Books); K. Okamoto, (1992), Education of the Rising Sun, (Tokyo: Monbusho); H. W. Stevenson, C. Chen, and S. Lee, (1993), “Motivation and Achievement of Gifted Children in East Asia and the United States,” Journal for The Education of the Gifted 16, 3: 223—250.

Kate Nolan has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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