Student Achievement

Study Offers Ways to Better European Education

By Sean Cavanagh — January 17, 2006 5 min read

School systems that track students into certain classes and academic programs based on ability end up worsening disparities between high and low performers, according to a far-ranging report that offers recommendations for improving education across Europe.

The study, commissioned by a branch of the European Union, also found that bilingual education has a positive effect on academic performance, and that non-native students benefit from being integrated within schools with majority native-born populations.

Titled “Explaining Student Performance,” the study was conducted by the Danish Technological Institute, an independent research center. Its findings will be presented to members of the EU later this month in Brussels, Belgium.

“Explaining Student Performance” is available from the Danish Technological Institute.

The report analyzes recent results from three major international studies of student academic skill: the Program for International Student Assessment, the Trends in International Science and Mathematics Study, and the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study. The United States participates in all three studies.

Tracking, by the study’s definition, is the practice of placing students age 12 or younger in different schools, or different classes within schools, based on their academic ability. A majority of European countries do not use tracking systems, the report says. But Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, and Slovakia use some variation of it, the researchers found. Such systems exacerbate gaps in student achievement in subjects such as math and reading, they argue.

“It seems like the only thing you achieve through tracking is variation among students in academic performance,” Jens Henrik Haahr, the study’s principal author, said in an interview last week. “You can target education to certain groups, but you make the good students better and the bad students worse.”

The Nordic Model

The far more effective approach, the authors say, can be seen in Nordic countries, especially Finland, which uses “heterogeneous grouping”—bringing students of different abilities together in the same classes and schools. Not only do Finland’s students outperform students from other countries, but the nation’s percentage of low-achieving students overall also is smaller than other countries’, and the gap between them and top performers is narrower. (“Finnish Students Are at the Top of the World Class,” March 16, 2005.)

What Works Across the Pond

A report for the European Union that looks at the strengths and weaknesses of European nations in promoting learning at the elementary and secondary levels draws conclusions about several aspects of education on the continent.

• Tracking students into different classes and academic programs based on their ability increases disparities in education.

• Bilingual education has a positive effect on academic performance, though only a small number of European nations offer it.

• Non-native students tend to succeed academically when they are integrated within schools with predominantly native populations.

• Preschool has a positive academic impact on children, judging from the results among both 4th graders and 15-year-olds.

• Autonomous schools, those that are given freedom by governments in areas such as hiring and budgeting, yield stronger academic results than more centrally run government schools, particularly in mathematics.

SOURCE: Danish Institute of Technology

The experience of Finland and other Nordic nations shows that avoiding tracking, and promoting equal opportunity, does not hurt the highest achievers, the authors found.

Zalman Usiskin, a professor of education and the director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, was not surprised by that finding. Students benefit from the approach used in Finland and other countries in many ways, including less obvious advantages such as hearing stronger-performing classmates use more sophisticated vocabulary and asking insightful questions during discussions, he speculated.

“When you take the best students out of the class, you don’t have any models for other students to emulate,” Mr. Usiskin said.

The high performers, meanwhile, continue to prosper academically in Finnish classrooms, he said, partly because strong national curricula set high standards for them.

Mr. Usiskin also noted that academic-tracking models vary greatly from country to country. Some high-performing Asian countries use relatively rigid tracking systems compared with European ones, he said. Although the United States’ education system does not meet those definitions of tracking, its schools do separate students by ability in subjects such as math and through the use of honors-level courses, Mr. Usiskin said.

The Danish report was requested by the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day policies of the European Union, a cooperative organization that sets common economic, social, and other policies for its 25 member nations. Leaders of the EU have established goals for improving student performance in mathematics, science, and reading, especially among struggling learners.

Local or National?

Although the report examines international test data from countries outside Europe, including the United States and Asian nations, its purpose is to provide findings and recommendations for the EU.

The 216-page document recommends that European nations expand bilingual education programs, which it concludes are effective. Currently, only a handful of countries, such as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Sweden, use some form of bilingual instruction, the authors found. Attempts to promote those programs in recent years have met with resistance from critics of liberal immigration policies, said Mr. Haahr, who is based in Aarhus, Denmark.

“The intuitive trend among politicians is to go away from bilingual education,” he said. “Politicians have tended to follow the popular, populist view: ‘People should learn the language [of] the country.’ ”

In another finding with implications for immigration policy, the report concludes that non-native students in European nations tend to perform better when they are integrated in schools with relatively high numbers of native-born youths. Moreover, school systems that become more inclusive are not likely to suffer academically, the authors say.

In fact, the report says, in the best-performing Asian countries, “the socioeconomic backgrounds of students matter the least.”

The report also concludes that schools flourish when they are given more freedom over decisionmaking in areas ranging from hiring and spending to course content and discipline.

Mr. Usiskin drew a parallel between that finding and studies in the United States showing that student achievement is higher when schools, rather than state governments, are given more control over the adoption of textbooks.

Teachers in states that allow more local control “have the freedom to pick up more things,” he said. “The stronger the state authority, the more likely the teacher is to defer to that authority.”


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