Education Opinion

Why Is Achievement Rising in Some Countries, Going Down in Others?

By Marc Tucker — March 19, 2015 3 min read
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Geoff Masters, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research, is one of the treasures of Australia. Not just my opinion. He holds the Medal of the Order of Australia, the highest honor the Australian government can bestow on its citizens. He’s written a paper you need to read, with the innocuous title “Is School Reform Working?

In it, Masters makes the point that countries that have long been top performers may have that status for reasons—mostly cultural—not directly related to their education policies and practices. So, to determine which policies and practices work best, he looks first at countries that have been doing well and improving rapidly, on the assumption that cultures do not change very quickly, so it is more likely that education policies and practices are responsible for the high performance. Then he looked for systematic differences in policies and practices between these improving countries with others in which student performance has been relatively poor and either holding steady or declining.

This approach is a little different than the one we have taken at NCEE. We’ve looked at the top performers and contrasted them with one country, the United States, a country in which student performance at the high school level has been flat for years and slipping fast in relation to the top performers. What is interesting is that our conclusions and those of Masters are pretty much the same.

But Masters lives in a country quite unlike the United States. When the PISA scores first came out in 2001, Australia was among the PISA top ten performers. But that is true no longer. Australian student performance has been sliding steadily since then, both relative to the top performers and in absolute terms. Masters points out that his country, New Zealand and the UK are all countries that have embraced a set of reforms driven by reformers—mostly economists—who have argued that education reform will be most effective when driven by policies intended to unleash market incentives on education professionals in order to improve their performance. These policies include increasing competition among schools, providing financial rewards to teachers whose students score higher on standardized tests, firing teachers whose students fail to achieve and so on. Much the same, of course, could be said of the United States. And it is precisely these countries that have seen their performance eclipsed by a growing number of other countries and, in some cases, actually trend downward in absolute terms. Over the period in which PISA has provided this comparative data, the gap in average student performance in mathematics between Korean and Australian students has grown by the equivalent of a full year. Nor has there been any compensating lessening of the gap between Australia’s highest performing majority students and its most disadvantaged students. Everyone went down together. All this while performance, as measured by average student achievement and equity, was improving in many nations.

Masters observes some common themes among the countries in which average student performance and equity were improving: "[R]eform efforts tend to have been focused first on building the capacity of school leaders and classroom teachers to deliver high quality teaching and learning, and on ensuring that excellent teaching and leadership are distributed throughout the school system.” He also notes that top performers have emphasized the training of teachers to “undertake systematic research into their own teaching,” another mark of an effort to professionalize the occupation of teaching. He observes that "[a]nother feature of high-performing systems is that they have put in place system-wide processes to identify students who are falling behind and to intervene quickly to put students back on track...These countries set high expectations for every student’s learning...[and] appreciate the importance of effective system and school leadership.” He makes a particular point of the importance of making sure “that performance improves across the entire education system.” And they do this, he says, in part by making sure that resources are equitably distributed across all schools.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize all of these points as findings from our own research over the years. What is new here is that those findings are confirmed by a prominent researcher on the other side of the world who has also found that other countries with faltering systems of education share a pattern of policy drivers with the United States, policy drivers very different from those found in the top-performing countries.

Food for thought.

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