International studies in education should be more than a horse race to see which nations’ students can rack up higher test scores, according to a report released last week.
Instead, the Board on International Comparative Studies in Education argues, the United States should broaden its scope of international education research and explore why some nations outscore others, how countries’ school systems and practices differ, and whether some of those alternative approaches could work in U.S. schools.
The report is the final product of the 13-member board, which was formed in 1988 by the National Research Council to advise the federal government on large-scale, cross-national education surveys. The group’s charge was expanded in 1998 to include other kinds of comparative international studies in education.
The United States’ involvement in such studies picked up in the 1990s, after the first President Bush and the nation’s governors decided that making U.S. students first in the world in mathematics and science should be the nation’s first education goal.
Although the technical quality of international surveys improved over that time, the findings added little to the national conversation over how to improve schools, according to the report.
“Most individual policymakers, practitioners, and parents in the United States know little more about education in other countries than that ‘we are not number one in mathematics and science,’” the report says.
Diversifying the Portfolio
To get more out of those studies, it concludes, the United States should balance its portfolio of surveys with two other kinds of research: comparative studies looking at how some U.S. educational policies, such as vouchers or academic tracking, play out across the world, and studies that look in depth at how other nations’ education systems operate.
“We shouldn’t neglect our ability to understand and describe what’s going on just because we want to do large- scale, international studies,” said Emerson J. Elliott, the board’s chairman. Now the director of the program-standards and evaluation project at the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, in Washington, Mr. Elliott is a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.
Because such research can be expensive, however, the report also calls for eliminating duplicative efforts. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study and the new Program for International Student Assessment, for example, gauge student achievement across many of the same nations.
In the end, what might be needed, the report says, is a new federal infrastructure to plan a more coordinated, long-term national plan for international research in education.
“It takes time and effort,” the report concludes, “to understand other countries’ educational systems well enough to learn what they can tell us about ourselves.”