Blog | Insight Education Group

Forget Singapore and Finland: For School Improvement Practices, Let’s Look Elsewhere

Written by Jason Culbertson | 1/9/17 3:00 PM

A few years ago, the height of elevated education discourse was centered around what we in the U.S. could learn and adopt from Finland and Singapore, two countries that share more in terms of demographics than educational philosophy.

These small countries (with populations of about 5.5 million each) have revolutionized their approach to teaching and learning, but in ways that have taken advantage of their small size and powerful national education administrations.

Walk into an education conference or join a social media chat today and you may notice, as I have, a bit of a Finnish Fatigue or a Singapore Slump. Educators are realizing that exporting these models to a large country of 50 states, thousands of local education agencies, and a diverse mix of students and social challenges doesn’t always work. Does that mean we should stop looking abroad for best practices and process improvements? Far from it. But it does mean we might need to cast a wider net.

Recent data comparing testing results in Vietnam to countries that participate in TIMMS, the longest running, large scale international assessment of mathematics and science education in the world, showed the Southeast Asian country punching well above its weight compared to its peers in countries with similar GDPs.

One theory for the country’s success is that, despite significant challenges, Vietnam invests heavily in education, including comprehensive preschool programs. As a result, the country turns out focused students with levels of parental involvement on par with role model countries like Switzerland or—gasp—Finland.

Looking to the Middle East

From my own experience touring schools in Egypt and Jordan, I know firsthand that developing countries have a steep hill to climb when it comes to structuring high-quality education systems. But I also know they have a lot to share with us, especially in areas we’re still working to change ourselves as we share many similar challenges.

As part of a partnership between the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut and various education institutions in Jordan, I recently spent several weeks over the course of the last year there with a group of Connecticut superintendents. During our time, I utilized Insight Education’s instructional coaching model with school principals at Queen Rania’s Teacher Academy.

In Jordan, I found a group of devoted school leaders who were struggling with many of the same issues school leaders are grappling with stateside: Class sizes are large, student discipline is an issue, the teacher and principal pipeline is impacting human capital, funding is tight, and inequality translates into uneven outcomes for students. I also found leaders eager to improve their practice and share the best practices they’ve created. This has made them some of the most adaptable and passionate educators anywhere.

When we began our coaching regimen, it was like a breath of fresh air for everyone. Principals in Jordan, where reflective coaching is in its infancy and where educators don’t always receive extensive training, were unaccustomed to receiving so much professional development at once.

The same may be said for the U.S. superintendents, who, once leading districts, rarely receive true coaching. The superintendents served as facilitators of content, but they were also there as lead learners, because every day I served as an Insight executive coach and used questioning to prompt true self-reflection. Based on the feedback the superintendents received, the sessions evolved to meet the unique needs of the participants.

With only 20 work days, we had to figure out how to scaffold our instruction to have the most impact in the timeframe. Since coaching had proved both new and exciting to everyone, we taught the principals how to conduct their own coaching sessions and how to carve out time to work with their teachers—the same way we were working with them.

We also introduced them to STEP, or the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project. STEP is a professional learning community model that takes a systemic approach to finding the bright spots in a school site and then replicating them. Instead of relying on outside experts to create new schoolwide solutions—the way some have proposed adopting Finnish or Singaporean models wholesale—STEP unearths the best leaders and the best practices that already exist.

Every step of the way in working with Jordanian leaders, though, we were expected to explain the rationale for our processes using research. In the U.S., with the push for evidence-based offerings as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, that’s starting to become more common, but in Jordan, everyone from the Ministry of Education to everyday educators ground themselves in research.

When we introduced elements of the instructional core, the discussion turned to the work of Richard Elmore and others. Even more impressive is the fact that the push for research is not treated as an idle curiosity or as means for justification, but rather forms an active part of the country’s education system and serves as a backbone for professional growth.

Take principal training, for example. Unlike here in the U.S., Jordan is working towards different levels, or tiers, for principals, the highest of which is “expert principal.” To receive that honor, an educator does a year of action research where they combine best practices in the research they’ve studied with on-the-ground implementation—a phenomenally effective idea.

And yet, on the flip side what’s interesting is that in the U.S. we excel in our focus on implementation and practical application in the classroom. As recent featured speakers at EduForum, a large international education conference in Cairo, Egypt, my colleague, Jason Stricker, and I found educators (mainly from the Middle East) clamoring for information on practical best practices that they could take back to their schools and classrooms.

Takeaway: Building a Global Networked Improvement Community Matters

While we in the U.S. talk about delineating responsibility to teachers or creating master teachers to help promote retention and growth, we have yet to codify a system of advancement or scaffold it to the ranks of administrators as the Jordanians have done to provide effective building leaders the same advancement opportunities outside of district-level positions.

Ultimately, this way of thinking does a lot of good. The educators I met in Jordan and Egypt have a genuine curiosity about best practices from around the world, and a desire to share what they do best with others. They recognize our differences but see past them to our similarities and shared challenges.

In the U.S., we love to encourage that kind of give-and-take, especially encouraging global thinking in our students, but it can be all too absent from our own professional development. There’s no better time for us to take a look at what systems around the world with similar challenges are doing, see what’s working, what’s not working and create a global networked improvement community to both teach and learn.

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