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Notes from Education Nation: Building on Models of International Education

NBC

The first panel I attended on Tuesday morning at NBC’s Education Nation was a discussion on what practices international schools are using to achieve so much better than the U.S. – and how we can incorporate them into our schools. According to statistics given at Education Nation, here’s how to the U.S. is currently performing:
 
We rank:
-15th in Literacy
-24th in Math
-21st in Science
 
The two main points I took away from the talk:
 
The U.S. needs to work harder to recruit and maintain the brightest American students in the profession of teaching. This was a common theme discussed throughout the entire summit, but let’s face it: teaching is not a highly regarded profession in the U.S. It’s not well-paid or respected, and most of those who go into teaching do so simply because they love it. But as discussed in Secretary Duncan’s address on Monday, 46% of teachers leave within the first five years of their career. In fact, Monica Groves, the teacher whose story of her first year on the job was shown in a video at Monday’s tumultuous teacher panel, asked that panel and the final panel a very important question: how do you keep good teachers after getting them in the door? From the footage it seemed like she had little support and mentoring once she was in the classroom. Fortunately she was able to look within herself for strength and confidence, but not everyone can – or should have to – do that.
 
It probably doesn’t help that our teachers aren’t as well-prepared as teachers in, say, Finland. As the President of the National Education Association Dennis van Roekel described in the teacher panel, teachers in Finland undergo much more extensive training and education before getting into the classroom than American teachers. Finnish teachers are also recruited from the top-performing students. In fact, the common denominator in successful foreign schools, this panel reported, is that they all only take teachers from the top third of student classes. Only 21% of teachers in the U.S. came from the top third of their class.
 
Secretary Duncan referenced the need to recruit and retain effective teachers and to make the teaching profession better regarded in his address on Monday – so the urgency of this is not lost on him (not much is!) – and he also discussed new financial incentives for attracting students to teaching. This was also a point in Waiting for “Superman”; in the current union contract, not only can you not fire bad teachers, you can’t reward good ones either. Let’s give our teachers the R-E-S-P-E-C-T for which they are long overdue.
 
There needs to be a greater focus on arts programs. According to the panel, when the President or Secretary of Education gives a speech to a school, the memento they leave behind is a signed basketball. While it’s a nice gesture (and maybe I’m looking too much into it), it doesn’t exactly convey an appreciation for the arts – or STEM education, for that matter – two areas that desperately need funding and improvement in our public schools (though to be fair, Secretary Duncan definitely hit on the point of more resources being needed for STEM education).  But still -- why can’t President Obama or Secretary Duncan leave a cello or a microscope as a gift?
 
This was brought up in the international education panel. It surprised me to learn that Finland, which ranks high in math and science, isn’t solely focused on those two subjects. In fact, they teach even more arts and drama than science and math. What gives? Multiple studies have proven that the arts only expand kids’ creativity and education experience – on that point a teacher at an Indiana K-12 school at the panel said, “The arts are crucial for innovation.” The division between arts and science is very apparent at U.S. schools, while less so at successful international ones. So while drama club and music lessons are the first to go when budgets are cut, I hope that psychology will be challenged in the future, in light of this panel.
 
In closing, the panel moderator noted that 77% of Americans rate our own school system at a C or below. Perhaps by implementing the main points of this discussion, we can make the A grade.
 
Readers, have you attended or had your kids in a foreign school system? How did it compare to the U.S.’s? What are your thoughts on this panel?

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