US schools should take a lesson from Asia.

I just read about the results of a 2015 global education survey that shows U.S. high school students come in a dispiriting 26th out of 65 places worldwide in combined scores for math, science and reading tests.
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This latest league table, ranking more than a third of the world’s nations, shows once again the poor performance of the United States, slipping behind successful European countries and being overtaken by Vietnam. It also highlights the decline of Sweden, with the OECD warning last week that it had serious problems in its education system.

The OECD’s Program for International Assessment (PISA) suggests that while America lags, Asia soars: Out of the top 10, eight are in the Asia-Pacific region — led by Shanghai and Hong Kong in China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

The rise of education in Asia is no accident. It reflects deliberate policies and long-term investments that recognize the centrality of quality education to a nation’s economic growth.

After living in Singapore and witnessing their growth and progress first hand I was especially taken by the former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s quote after the 2011 survey, “A nation’s wealth in the 21st century will depend on the capacity of its people to learn.” I think we should follow their lead.

I have listed a few of their key “best practices” from the most recent report that we here in the US are still only debating but should certainly adopt;

1) Rigorous standards and coherent curricula. I also saw this first hand in Japan, Asian nations establish high academic standards and a demanding school curriculum that clearly defines the content to be taught and is sequenced to build on a student’s abilities step by step. High-quality teachers and principals.

2) Teachers are routinely recruited from among the top high-school graduates and, unlike in the U.S., principals generally do not apply to become school leaders as much as they are selected and prepared to do so. There are comprehensive systems for selecting, training, compensating and developing teachers and principals — delivering tremendous skill right to the classroom.
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3) Emphasis on math and science. Math and science training begins early in primary school and rigorous courses such as biology, chemistry and physics, as well as algebra and geometry are part of a core curriculum for secondary school. Specialist teachers are often employed in elementary schools unlike “generalists” usually found in U.S. schools.

4) Time and Effort. With longer school years and sometimes longer school days, Asian students often have the equivalent of several more years of schooling by the time they finish high school than the typical American student. Asian students are also expected to work hard in school, reflecting a societal belief that developing one’s skills and knowledge reflects effort more than innate ability.

The time has come for America to learn from Asia and the world. Our ability to compete and lead in a global economy may well depend on it.

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