I am in Norway right now, teaching in the education system, and all I can think about is cooking. To be honest, I am not particularly talented in the kitchen, but I’m addicted to cooking shows—and they seem strangely relevant when I think of how U.S. education leaders talk about schools in other countries.
Let me back up a bit. For the 2014-15 academic year, I have a Fulbright grant at the Norwegian Center for Languages in Education. Every week, I visit schools to conduct student workshops and teacher professional-development sessions while also learning about this beautiful country, Norwegian culture, and, of course, the public education system. It is an amazing gig and, as a mid-career teacher, I am grateful for the opportunity to break away from my “day job” to teach, travel, and learn every day.
So why do I think about cooking all of the time?
I have been teaching all over the United States since 1998. Schools were part of my life from a young age when I visited my mother’s classrooms in Missouri, Michigan, and South Korea. The first students I taught were six-year-olds and now, at a Minnesota community college, my students range from 16 to 65. To me, education in the United States is not only about test scores. It is also a culturally-influenced, interpersonal endeavor that invites students to engage with complex issues.
Yet often when U.S. policymakers address public education concerns, I hear international examples touted as though they are magical recipes from faraway lands. They say things like, “In country A’s schools, they do this. Why don’t we? If we want to have a world-class education system, our schools should do this too!” When I hear this, especially now, I think about cooking.
If you are familiar with the show “Top Chef,” you know that chefs compete in a series of cooking challenges that end with a finale in another locale. During one particular season, chefs competed in Florida and then flew to a finale in Colorado. Let’s just say it did not go well. Due to dramatic changes in elevation, each chef soon found that the estimated cooking times they had formulated near a beach faltered on a mountain top.
In other words, context matters. It matters deeply in ways that simply cannot be discerned from isolated examples cited in books or reports. There is no way around it: Leaving context out of the equation, when it comes to public education, is a problem. As one Norwegian teacher told me last week, “When you travel, you experience things that you just cannot read about.” I could not agree more. Public education in the United States and in Norway is shaped by the social, political, and cultural forces that are deeply ingrained in each country’s way of life.
This is not to say that we should not learn from other countries and their approaches to complex problems, like issues surrounding public education. On the contrary, we just need to profoundly change our mindsets on what those approaches might mean for us.
Instead of our traditional, adoption-focused mindset that prompts comments like, “Stop doing A! Do B instead,” we are in desperate need of mechanisms that support consistent collaboration and development. I am talking about the kind of ongoing connections that inspire teachers and lead to collaborative networks among them.
We need to make an explicit effort to approach international comparisons in ways that not only illuminate alternative educational approaches but also provide opportunities to reflect on what we collectively expect of U.S. schools and society as a whole. If we do not define the purpose of our public education system and, instead, cyclically adopt any approach that seems to “work” somewhere else, we will accomplish little.
We’ve all seen comparative charts of international test scores. These may provide interesting food for thought, but they hardly represent the end of any discussion. Data, instead, should inspire talk about influential variables like: Nationwide poverty rates, academic tracking, and migration patterns. No matter how much we try, the truth is that the U.S. public education system will not be fixed by adopting one or two recipes from any other country.
Here are just a few of the influential variables from Norway that vividly demonstrate how context matters. You may not know that Norwegians benefit from generous parental leave for child birth, student stipends for high school attendance, free public college education, and legislatively-mandated gender equity. In addition, Norway has influential workers’ unions that seek to ensure a healthy work-life balance for citizens.
All of these factors profoundly affect public education across Norway, a country of 5 million people (fewer people than in my home state of Minnesota). But I have noticed that factors like these are rarely mentioned when U.S. policymakers and education leaders talk about Norwegian schools. In the U.S., we seem to be hunkered down and trying to discern pieces of systems in other countries while only knowing half the story, at best. We ignore the fact that U.S. schools are often asked to confront a wide spectrum of social issues that are not even a consideration elsewhere.
I have also noticed that Norwegian teachers and students travel extensively across Europe. In so doing, they develop long-term relationships for ongoing learning and future conversations. The truth is, while the United States attempts short-term solutions to address complex issues at home, the world is changing quickly, and so are schools. Now more than ever, it is essential that the U.S. education system become a part of international networks and collegial dialogues. If not, we may soon be left behind.