5 Lessons That the World's Schools Can Teach the U.S.

Learning from education successes in Australia, Canada, China, Finland and Singapore.

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A staff member walks past a student art project at the Hong Kong International School / Reuters

Hundreds of reforms are introduced into American school systems every year. Unfortunately, most fail to achieve the substantial improvements that their advocates hoped for and, overall, U.S. educational performance has been flat for the past 20 years.

We now know that a number of other countries -- primarily Asian nations -- have gotten a lot better than the U.S., accelerating educational improvement in a short time and on a large scale. Their success in improving hundreds of schools is inspiring. But what exactly has enabled them to raise their game and become global high performers? And are there lessons for U.S. schools?

My new book, A World-Class Education: Lessons from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, tells the stories of five very different systems: Australia, Canada, China (Shanghai), Finland and Singapore. Despite differences in policy details and practices, as well as in the cultural contexts and political systems in these countries, there are clearly some common drivers of success.

Here are the five big lessons from some of the world's top-performing systems:

1. Long-Term Vision

The political leaders of countries with high-performing education systems share a conviction about the centrality of education to their dreams for their society: To raise people from poverty, achieve greater equality, develop a well-functioning multi-cultural society and, certainly, create a thriving economy and a growing number of good jobs.

Each of these systems has a long-term vision for how education can achieve this, which is widely shared inside and outside the education system. In Singapore, for example, the vision helped to propel their economy from third world to first; China's 2020 vision was developed with online input from millions of people and includes universal high school graduation and world-class universities; Alberta asked all its citizens to contribute to a dialog on what the educated Albertan of 2030 should look like; Finland's vision was to become a modern society and economy, free from domination by larger powers.

2. Sustained Leadership

Major reforms are often triggered by an economic, social, or political crisis and may be led by a single strong leader. Such reform efforts can bring about significant improvement within a three- to five-year period, but substantial changes in performance or closing achievement gaps on a large scale require a longer time frame than most political cycles. Therefore high leadership turnover is a fundamental barrier to sustaining change.

Presented by

Vivien Stewart is Senior Advisor to Asia Society. She promotes international studies and language learning in schools, and convenes U.S. and Asian education leaders around critical issues.

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