September 4, 2014

Can Foreign Countries Teach Oklahoma a Lesson About Education?

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Teachers Matter forum

How did Finland, South Korea and Poland become international leaders in education? How can the United States and Oklahoma learn from their models?

That question and ways to improve the teaching profession were the main topics of a “Teachers Matter” forum held in Oklahoma City Thursday. Speakers included author and journalist Amanda Ripley, teacher of the year Peter Markes, Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Robert Neu and Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard. The event, held at the Oklahoma History Center, was organized by Stand for Children Oklahoma, which advocates for stronger schools.

Ripley’s book, “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way,” features an Oklahoma high school student who studied abroad in Finland, and it looks at what other nations have done to improve education.

Here are key takeaways from the discussion:

• It’s unfair to draw direct comparisons between Oklahoma or the U.S. and other nations academically because of differences in racial and socio-economic makeup, Ripley said. “But the comparison is made whether we like it or not,” she said. The U.S. can learn from other nations to improve student academic performance. There is nothing other nations are doing that Oklahoma or the U.S. can’t do better, Ripley said.

It’s unfair to draw direct comparisons between Oklahoma or the U.S.  and other nations academically using international test results because of differences in racial and socio-economic makeup. But the U.S. can still learn from other nations to improve student academic performance. There is nothing other nations are doing that Oklahoma or the U.S. can’t do better, Ripley said.

• The fact that other nations are surpassing the United States on international test results is not a sign that American students are performing worse than before, Ripley said. Studies show today’s students perform better on math and reading than previous generations. So why is the country losing on international assessments?

“We have not gotten dumber,” Ripley said. “We are getting smarter … but much more slower than other countries.”

• Although Common Core standards may be dead in Oklahoma, Ripley said, the state needs to implement rigorous standards. Foreign-exchange students surveyed by Ripley said they loved that U.S. schools have sports and extracurricular activities, which are not available in many other nations. But foreign-exchange students also said the course content is easier here.

“Whatever you end up doing, I am begging you to come up with a rigorous set of standards that aligns with what kids need to know in the world,” Ripley said. “There is no evidence that there is a way around this.”

• Principals in the U.S. deal with too much bureaucracy, leaving them with insufficient time for supporting teachers in the classroom, Ripley said. Instead of devoting enough time to training, professional development and evaluating teachers, principals find themselves dealing with tasks such as hiring athletic coaches and talking to parents upset about their children’s punishment.

• Education must be a priority, including with funding. Many people know Oklahoma has the third lowest per-pupil funding in the nation; fewer know the state also falls below average internationally. The average per-pupil expenditure internationally was $8,501 in 2010, according to them most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Oklahoma spent $8,301 per student in 2010-2011, according to the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.

• People should treat teaching as a valued profession. Ballard said the state’s low pay is the third most prevalent reason teachers leave Tulsa schools. Lack of feeling valued and a lack of support, especially in a tough urban district, are the top two reasons. Neu said teachers are not in the job for the money, but still need to be able to support themselves. Passion can only take teachers so far, especially when Oklahoma has the lowest pay in the region.

“We do need to increase pay to entice them,” Neu said. For teachers, “it can’t just be all heart.”

• Students must see the value in education, which then becomes contagious. Students in all countries are most influenced by other students. In every developed nation, students earn more if they graduate from high school or college, Ripley said.

• Markes said he set a specific goal to become Oklahoma’s teacher of the year seven years ago. Each year he took specific steps to improve his teaching in hopes of achieving the goal. Even if other teachers’ goals are different, Markes said, they need to find ways to push themselves to become better professionally.

“The reward was becoming teacher of the year,” he said. “I hope to inspire people to choose to take the steps to be teacher of the year.”

• Amid the worried talks about education reform, Ripley said people need to remember there are good things about education in the United States.

“We do not have the worst education system in the world,” she said. “There are many … countries that want to have our education system.”

• Other nations have succeeded in closing academic achievement gaps among groups, such as those affecting hurting immigrant or lower-income children. The United States can do the same.

Ripley said  Finland had a 10 percent graduation rate in the 1950s, but has raised that to  95 percent and is now viewed as a model for education reform.

“There is hope,” she said.

  • Blake

    I’d like to gently offer a correction. Amanda Ripely did not say that comparisons of the U.S. to other countries were invalid, or even comparisons of Oklahoma to other countries. What she did say is that such comparisons should be careful, and that hyperbole has been used in the past around such comparisons. But there have been plenty of gold-standard academic studies using such comparisons. The work of the website globalreportcard.com allows one to compare individual school districts to peers around the world. Indeed, Ripley herself highlighted exactly this kind of work from Stanford in this feature for The Atlantic, and one can see where Oklahoma ranks in the interactive chart: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/12/your-child-left-behind/308310/

  • Oklahoma Watch

    Thanks for your comments. Checking our notes, we believe the lines are a fair summation of what Ripley said, but have further clarified her remark and added a quote.

  • Betty

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned regarding Finland is that the leadership in the country looked at what needed to be done to make real changes and committed to that for a decade. The reforms were based on sound knowledge of what works in schools such as high quality teacher training and support, and then giving them professional autonomy, less standardized testing, etc. The reforms were based on what we know about children and learning, not on politics. Too often, schools in the U.S. are at the whim of mandates imposed by state leadership that change every couple of years.