Element #1: Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards

  • The top-performing countries ensure that children arrive at school ready to learn. The responsibility for this varies among the countries. For example, in high-performing countries with a large proportion of women in the workforce, the government typically provides support to families with young children. In other countries, however, the responsibility falls on families—often extended families— and the community. In both situations, society places a high priority on making sure that children are in good health and prepared to learn. In most cases, if the families cannot or will not provide these supports to children, then society steps in. These supports often continue after children begin school.

  •  In the United States, children in poverty now account for about a quarter of all children in public schools. Large numbers of American children enter first grade with disadvantages that may overwhelm the school’s capacity to provide an adequate education.

  •  Because high-performing countries provide supports to ensure that children are ready for school, their schools typically do not face similar challenges. Once students in top-performing countries are in school, those who struggle receive extra help to reach the same high standards other students will reach more easily. Providing additional resources to schools serving disadvantaged, struggling students is a priority. More teachers are typically allocated to such schools, with the best teachers serving in the most challenged ones. Resources are also reallocated within schools to reach those most in need of extra support. These countries demonstrate that, with added support, struggling students can meet high expectations. Inversely, American students from the wealthiest communities are most likely to get the best teachers and the finest facilities because of the way we structure our finance systems

Element #2: A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed

  • High performing countries have redesigned their schools and the overall work environment to maximize the success of teachers and students. For example, teachers are given a lighter teaching load and more time for their own—and their colleagues’—development. In some of these countries, 30 percent to 35 percent of a teacher’s time is spent teaching students, while the rest is spent on activities such as working in teams with other teachers to develop and improve lessons, observing and critiquing classes, and working with struggling students. Teacher evaluation, promotion and pay takes into consideration teachers’ performance in teams and their progress as they become experts in their craft. Schools and classrooms are organized differently so that several teachers, perhaps even a group, have responsibility for a classroom. When not working directly with students, teachers are rewriting curriculum and assessments to meet the needs of their students and to meet high student performance expectations. Teachers also counsel and train each other, constantly observing, evaluating and improving their practices. Because they are trained to be experts at their craft, teachers push themselves, their colleagues and their students to be the best in the world. This highly professional work environment is uncommon in the U.S.

  •  Most teacher preparation programs in top performing countries are based in prestigious research universities that are more selective and rigorous than U.S. programs. Teaching programs know and produce the number and types of teachers needed to fill vacancies each year, so admission is quite competitive. Programs require mastery of subjects to be taught and often include clinical practice that can take significantly longer to complete than teacher induction programs in the U.S. There are no approved alternative routes to licensure like those in the states, which enable professionals to become teachers with only a few weeks or months of training.

  • Either during preparation or upon entering the teaching workforce, new teachers in high-performing countries are expected to serve apprenticeships with officially designated, well-trained master teachers. During the first year of this induction, beginning teachers typically have a greatly reduced workload.

  • In high-performing countries, the school leader is highly trained and carefully selected. In Singapore, for example, only teachers who have been trained in its highly rigorous system and have already served in a variety of school settings can become principals. Principals receive training in curriculum, instruction and school administration. School leaders interact regularly and in great depth with their teachers. In the U.S., although it is understood that great schools require great leaders, recruitment, selection and training systems that foster such leadership have not been uniformly developed.

  •  In high-performing countries, teachers are compensated more generously than American teachers, typically earning pay similar to that of senior civil servants and professionals such as engineers and accountants. They are expected to be the best in the world and are compensated accordingly. Many nations view their teachers as “nation builders,” preparing the country’s next generation

  •  ... internationally benchmarked standards that specify what students should know and be able to do in language arts, mathematics, science and all required subjects in the curriculum. Increasingly, these include both high-level complex cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills, such as ethical behavior, framing and completing tasks, teamwork and leadership. Top performers develop curriculum frameworks based on these high standards and specify the order in which concepts should be taught, either by grade or grade span, thereby creating a clear path to student mastery.

  • They do not include lesson plans because teachers are expected to develop them guided by the syllabi and curriculum framework. Policymakers in these countries assume that if the teachers know the desired outcomes, they are skilled enough to prepare lessons that will enable their students to master that material.

  • The top performers also prepare assessments that are designed to find out whether students have mastered material in the syllabi. Because the syllabi specify high-level complex skills, the assessments typically contain few multiple choice, computer-scored prompts, since that type of assessment does not effectively measure high-level skills. These assessments are typically essay-based and scored by humans, so the high-performing countries spend more than states on assessments. They are not administered annually, however, but instead at key transition points in a student’s academic career. Similar to teacher pay, these countries prioritize this investment as a small fraction of the total cost of their education system, knowing that cheaper, less effective, less rigorous assessments will not lead to world-class teaching or high student achievement.

Element #3: A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education

  • (CTE) is emerging in many top-performing countries as a strategy to boost the national economy and offer a high standard of living and attractive careers to a broader constituency. Singapore and Switzerland, in particular, have built strong systems of CTE with close ties to industry. Singapore uses a school-based model and Switzerland uses an employer-based model.

  •  In these countries, CTE is not perceived as a route for students lacking strong academic skills, but as another approach to education, skills development and good jobs. CTE is well funded, academically challenging and aligned with real workforce needs. It is hands-on, attractive to students and parents, and can lead to university for students who may seek professional and managerial positions later. For other students, CTE is a pathway to good jobs, by building technical skills that can be achieved much earlier than the traditional academic experience.

  • On the other hand, the U.S. has experienced a steady decline in CTE over the last few decades. This has become a challenge for American employers struggling to find skilled workers and for students desiring an applied education or a streamlined entrance into the workforce. Although a number of states have impressive CTE schools or particular programs, very few have an entire CTE system that provides the kind and quality of opportunities available to students in top-performing systems. Community colleges are particularly well positioned in the states to link workforce needs to credentials and certificates.

Element #4: Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system. 

  • Top performing countries have adopted a comprehensive, systemic approach to building world-class education systems. They understand that success is not achieved by adopting only one or two “silver bullet” policies; instead, these countries have reimagined and re-engineered their entire systems. Typically, this vision is established at the national level with the ministry of education, while states or provinces are charged with implementation. This is not dissimilar to how states can enact reform: with a clear vision at the state level, while local entities are responsible for implementation.

  • Top-performing countries understand that schools will struggle without high-quality early childhood education and that high-quality early childhood education will not be a wise investment unless followed by high-quality instruction in the schools. They also understand that increasing teacher pay without rethinking the pool of teaching applicants may be unwise unless preparation programs are more rigorous. Likewise, they realize that a more rigorous program is pointless without creating a more attractive teaching profession

  • Unlike top-performing countries, states commonly take a piecemeal approach, where policymakers fail to set overarching goals for the education system and instead experiment with individual strategies that can sometimes change from year to year. States have designed and implemented many different education reform policies that are not always connected and consequently do not have the desired impact

  • States are well-positioned to instead create the kind of clear vision and systemic reform that high-performing countries do. State systems more closely resemble education governance in the high-performing countries. With input from stakeholders, state legislatures, state boards of education, governors and state education agencies can agree to a clear vision for the state and allow local entities to implement specific strategies.