School & District Management

East Met West in Project Studying Schools in Six Nations

By Debra Viadero — October 24, 2001 7 min read
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In addition to his many other avocations, Benjamin Franklin was a diplomat and a scientist.

So the Founding Father might have been pleased recently to see the university he helped establish play host to the culminating conference for an unusual project that involved education researchers and policymakers from six countries working together in the pursuit of scientific inquiry.

Over the last seven years, researchers from the Six-Nation Education Research Project have been collaborating on a wide range of studies, all of them aimed broadly at exploring the links between education and the economy. The topics put under the group’s microscope ranged from career-apprenticeship programs in Switzerland to English-language instruction in Singapore to American universities.

Equipped with drafts and charts, the researchers gathered here at the University of Pennsylvania Oct. 7-10 to share the fruits of their investigations.

The project is as notable for the way in which it was conducted as it is for its results. Drawing on government and private funding, each of the six nations financed its own research ventures. Five of the six projects involved researchers from the East and the West working together. And a prerequisite for participation was the involvement of policymakers who deal with the programs and systems the researchers were studying.

“There’s a considerable amount of international research out there, but I don’t think it’s very visible because it doesn’t involve policymakers. This is unusual,” said Susan H. Fuhrman, the dean of the university’s graduate school of education. The school coordinated the conference through its office of international programs and development.

The six nations that took part in the effort are China, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United States. Each country was asked to lead one study. The topics studied were determined jointly by the researchers and policymakers taking part.

Making It Relevant

For example, the Swiss delegates chose vocational education in order to feed into an ongoing debate in their country over the future direction of its century-old apprenticeship system, which serves 60 percent to 75 percent of students. Debate arose about that system after a recession hit the country in the early 1990s and many students were unable to find apprenticeship slots, according to Jean-Etienne Berset, the head of international affairs for the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology in Bern, Switzerland.

“The findings here, the criticisms, and the intelligent looks by experts from other countries can add to that discussion,” he said.

Concerned about the middling performance of American students on international mathematics and science tests, the U.S.-led study team focused on isolating factors that seemed to be linked to achievement differences between countries.

The Singaporeans, for their part, chose to research English-language instruction.

“Language is something very close to our heart,” said John Yip, a former official in Singapore’s education ministry. “We are a multiracial, multiethnic, and multilingual society, but we have adopted English as the language of administration.”

Involving Asian and Western nations was important from the start, said Cheng Yan Davis, the executive director of the University of Pennsylvania education school’s international office.

“In the East, the curriculum is often complicated,” said Ms. Davis, a native of China. “In the West, it’s sometimes too much fun. The question is, how do you balance that?”

Mr. Berset said the cross-national perspective, in some cases, was revealing. “If you are confronted with people asking questions of the people who are actors in your own system, it actually opens your eyes to other ways of seeing what you would not have seen before,” he said.

Likewise, the research methodologies of each project were as varied as the countries involved. The Swiss-led team, for example, visited vocational education systems in the United States, Switzerland, Singapore, and Japan, and came back with qualitative portraits of the programs in those countries. The American-led study on math and science achievement, by contrast, relied on statistical analyses of data that had already been collected for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, a study involving 41 countries.

For their study using TIMSS data, the researchers tested more than 170 variables, ranging from teacher training to homework, that they thought might account for differences in 8th graders’ performance.

Of those, the researchers isolated three that seemed to explain 84 percent of the international variation in math-test scores and four that appeared to account for 85 percent of the differences on the science tests.

In math, for example, the researchers found that having many students reporting that they usually do well in that subject was linked to lower average test scores. Eighth graders in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States are more likely than students in the top-scoring nations of Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong to say they do well in math.

“The more demanding the instruction, the more students are asked to perform at higher levels, the less they seem to like it and feel they do well in it,” said Erling E. Boe, the University of Pennsylvania education professor who helped spearhead that project.

Similar patterns turned up for the percentages of students who said their mothers thought it was important for them to succeed in sports and for the percentages of students who agreed that luck was required to do well in math.

Commonalities Uncovered

A major finding of the Swiss-led project on vocational education was the observation that, in all four of the countries studied, such programs seemed to carry an increasing stigma, compared with programs for college-bound students. To dispel those perceptions, the researchers recommended linking vocational programs more closely with general education curricula. The researchers also found few connections between the quality of those vocational programs and national economic downturns in the countries studied.

Singapore’s study of English-language education, focusing on programs in China, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United States, found that the great variations in those programs seem to stem from individual countries’ economic requirements, the composition of their student populations and labor forces, and teacher beliefs about how children learn languages.

The English-language programs were more extensive and more focused on communication skills, for example, in Singapore than they were in a country, such as Japan, that has a much more homogeneous population. But in all five countries, teachers seemed to know little about current theories on how to teach English, according to the study team.

A fourth cross-national study, on higher education, concluded that, as university enrollments increase and become more diverse, the role that faculty members have traditionally played in governing their institutions has begun to shrink.

In the final study, which focused on China, Singapore, and the United States, researchers looked at the quality and availability of systematic methods in all three countries for measuring the link between education and the economy. The team found such methods universally lacking.

Attendance at the final meeting was hurt by fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Of the 70 foreign researchers and policymakers who had planned to come, only 38 showed up. Singapore’s education minister canceled, for instance, because he also serves as defense minister in that country.

Yet his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, did speak to participants on Oct. 10 about the Bush administration’s education agenda.

Looking to the future, the group is making plans for a second round of studies, and two other nations—France and South Korea—have expressed interest in joining that effort. A book on the results of the first studies is also in the works, Ms. Davis said.

The researchers attending this month’s conference also predicted efforts such as theirs would become increasingly common as international education databases become more available and technology improves.

“Twenty years ago, we had nothing,” said Simon Field, a principal administrator for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “We have increasingly learned that we can learn from each other.”

Interesting ideas? Send suggestions for possible Research section stories to Debra Viadero at Education Week,
6935 Arlington Road, Suite 100
Bethesda, MD 20814
e-mail: dviadero@epe.orgCoverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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