Book Review: Fiske on Stewart, A World-Class Education

By Catherine A. Cardno — April 26, 2012 3 min read
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Today’s guest post, written for BookMarks by Edward B. Fiske, is a review of Vivien Stewart’s A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation (ASCD, 2012).

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Delving into Vivien Stewart’s new book, A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, is, to indulge a metaphor from Chinese cuisine, a simultaneously sweet and sour experience. The savory part comes from the fact that no one is better qualified than Stewart to discuss what the United States has to learn from other countries with successful school systems, and she does so clearly and persuasively. The sour taste emerges as it begins to dawn on you that most reform-minded educational policymakers in the United States are not only oblivious to most of these lessons but are, in fact, moving in exactly the wrong direction.

Stewart, who is the senior education adviser at the Asia Society, knows her subject well. She has traveled the globe and written with authority on the characteristics of successful school systems in both Western and Asian cultures. In this book, she introduces us to the usual high-performing suspects: schools in Singapore, Canada (Alberta and Ontario), Finland, China, and Australia. In each case, she talks about how and why the strong, effective system evolved in the particular culture, what makes it successful, and what insights it might hold for U.S. policymakers.

Stewart is no Panglossian. There are, she writes, “no quick fixes in education” or, for that matter, countries that stand as ideal models for the United States. She is frank to discuss the challenges that each of these countries are facing—high dropout rates in Ontario, a growing immigrant population in Finland, an oppressive college examination system in China—and why some of these challenges may limit their relevance as lessons for the United States.

Nevertheless, Stewart comes up with a compelling list of characteristics that run through each and every one of these countries, including ambitious standards, strong early childhood and preschool programs, curricular coherence, alignment of goals and practices, and high quality teachers who are treated as professionals and respond accordingly. Above all, she says, policymakers and leaders of the successful school systems around the world start with “a sense of moral purpose about the need to deal with inequities and promote a more just society.”

Step back from Stewart’s observations, and you realize that, far from moving to emulate the features of successful schools in other countries, the current thrust of school “reform” in the United States is moving in opposite directions. None of these countries draw their ideas from the corporate world or suffer from the delusion that successful hedge fund managers intuitively understand what’s good for education. None of them views choice and competition as elixirs, rely on top-down management, worship standardized tests, or define the public interest in education as the sum of private benefits. Above all, none of them believes that the way to improve teacher performance is through shame and humiliation. These successful systems prefer quaint concepts like “trust” and “professional.”

In one revealing passage, Stewart recalls visiting a school in Finland in 2009 as part of a delegation of American chief state school officers and encountering a group of Chinese educators who were there to observe how the Finns were implementing cooperative education—a practice that they first learned about from the United States. Yes, as Stewart emphasizes a number of times in this volume, there was a time when Americans where known around the world as educational innovators. Think individualized learning, special education, and even the research that undergirds Singapore math.

The global marketplace of ideas about school improvement can and should work both ways. While leaders of other successful school systems are frank to admit that they want to learn from us, the “benchmarking” bug does not seem to have infected the ideologically driven national- and state-level policymakers and leaders of private foundations who are currently driving the school reform agenda in the United States. Maybe if they read this insightful book, it might dawn on them that their ideas are out of sync with those of just about every other successful educational system, East and West.

Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of the New York Times and author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges series, is currently working on a study of gender equality in developing countries for UNESCO.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.