Foreign Scholars Eye Issues That Resonate In U.S.

By Debra Viadero — April 17, 2007 5 min read
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When it comes to national education systems, “accountability” appears to be a relative term, according to researchers from around the world attending the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting here last week.

More than 16,000 researchers showed up for the April 9-13 meeting, which was the 88th for the Washington-based research group. In keeping with the theme of the meeting, which was “A World of Educational Quality,” more than 1,800 of those scholars came from 67 countries outside the United States, according to AERA officials.

The discussion on educational accountability came in a session discussing approaches under way in Austria, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland to improve the quality of schools in those nations.

In most of those countries, as in much of the rest of Europe, disappointing results from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a multinational student-testing program run by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, have been a major impetus for school improvement efforts. Nearly 60 countries participated in the last round of PISA tests, which were administered last year.

According to Katharina Maag Merki, an education professor from the University of Freiburg in Germany, the school accountability movements in that country and in Switzerland are designed to be a trade-off: Local schools are given more autonomy, but they must teach to core-curriculum standards and submit to outside tests and evaluations.

Performance Assessed

In both countries, for instance, students take standardized tests, schools are inspected every three or four years, and teachers get performance-related appraisals at similar intervals.

But, in contrast to the United States, schools and teachers face no real sanctions for failing to meet the standards set by their governments. The stakes are only high for secondary school students in Germany, who must pass exit exams in order to graduate.

“The feedback that schools and teachers get does not automatically lead to improvement of schools or in the performance of pupils,” Ms. Merki said.

One year after undergoing a school inspection, 63 percent of German and Swiss teachers who were surveyed said they had taken some concrete steps to follow up on inspectors’ recommendations, according to Ms. Merki. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of teachers took any definitive steps to improve their teaching in response to their performance appraisals in the year after receiving them, Ms. Merki’s surveys showed.

“We need a more systematic connection between accountability and school development,” she said.

In Norway, policymakers have also centered their 3-year-old school improvement efforts on local schools and communities, according to Stefan T. Hopmann, an education professor at the University of Vienna in Austria.

“It begins with the idea that there is not one best way, and you have to help local communities customize their schooling,” he said.

In comparison, the school accountability movement in Austria is “all about creating one best education system,’’ he said. Progress is measured on PISA, a test that provides student- or school-level results, and students strive to do well so that Austria will rank high on that international comparison, according to Mr. Hopmann.

In Norway and Austria, as in Germany and Switzerland, the stakes are low for schools that fail to meet improvement standards. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, in comparison, U.S. public schools that consistently fail to meet their improvement targets face tougher sanctions, which include paying to provide extra tutoring for students or allowing students to transfer to better-performing schools.

“It’s clear that, while all over the world accountability is being talked about, it’s not the same thing,” said Robert L. Linn, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The session on accountability was among dozens of presentations at the AERA meeting to focus on international education topics.

Conference organizers said the number of foreign scholars who attended, after dipping dramatically in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, had increased by 800 this year over last year’s levels.

Research Quality Pushed

Sessions addressed immigration in Spain and northern Europe, school improvement in Qatar, educational technology development in India and South Africa, and efforts to strengthen educational research in the United Kingdom and Israel, among other topics.

“The quality of education research, I think, is an issue that most people around the world will recognize,” said Andrew Pollard, a director of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme at the University of London, an $80 million effort to improve and underwrite education research in the United Kingdom. There, as well as in the United States and other nations, an ongoing push is being made to transform education into an evidence-based science, scholars said.

The U.K. push, Mr. Pollard said, grew in part out of efforts begun over a decade ago to improve schooling in that country.

“There was an outpouring of criticism of education research for not meeting the needs of that process,” he said, describing a debate echoed in the United States.

Launched in 2000 with government funding from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the program has supported 65 research projects and 22 of what it calls “thematic investments,’’ efforts to bring in outside researchers and examine cross-cutting issues. Program researchers also try to synthesize results from the studies they oversee and publish guides for policymakers and practitioners, to help mediate between the academic and public-policy worlds.

But funding for the project, which represents one of the U.K.’s largest-ever investments in educational research, is due to run out by 2012. “One of the main things we try to establish in the minds of policymakers is that this is a worthwhile activity that merits long-term funding,” Mr. Pollard added.

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Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Foreign Scholars Eye Issues That Resonate in U.S.

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