U.S. Schools Can Learn From Singapore, Finland

Add up the scores on the recent international tests in math and science released last week by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and it's clear the United States isn't making the grade. Even with an upward tick in math scores, American students were still left in the dust of high-achieving Asian countries, while stagnant science scores were even more disappointing. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to return the United States to the top of the class, and earlier this week he selected Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan to lead the effort as his education secretary. But the controversial Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond has been the brains behind Obama's education policy over the past year as a lead education advisor on the campaign and during the transition. Her calls for better tests under No Child Left Behind and better teacher training have made it to the top of Obama's education priorities. Darling-Hammond spoke with NEWSWEEK's Sarah Garland about what America's schools could learn from Finland and Singapore. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK : In the past you've used examples from other countries to suggest ways of reforming No Child Left Behind in the United States. Which countries would you rank the highest in terms of education?
Darling Hammond: Finland ranks the highest generally across the board. The Netherlands, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland are all highly ranked across content areas. In some measures the United Kingdom is catching up a little. Sweden is another one, and a lot of the highly ranked countries are in Asia and Oceana—New Zealand and Australia.

What's the key to their success? What are they doing that the United States is not?
First, they have many fewer children in poverty and a much bigger safety net. We have 22 percent of our kids in poverty—the highest proportion of any industrialized country. Our schools have to make up for all of that, including the large achievement gap that kids have when they come to school from low-income families and haven't had preschool education.

Second, they spend their money equally on schools, sometimes with additional money to the schools serving high-need students. We take kids who have the least access to educational opportunities at home and we typically give them the least access to educational opportunities at school as well. We have the most unequal spread of achievement of any industrialized country except for Germany.

Then in Finland or Sweden or Hong Kong or Singapore, teachers get a completely free preparation, with a salary or a stipend while they're training. In Singapore, beginning teachers make more than beginning doctors. Our teachers teach 1,100 hours a year on average. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average is 650 hours.

How do the examples of these countries support your view of testing?
I have been a longtime advocate for standards. In other countries, that's what you see: you see assessments that are high quality, at least in the high-achieving countries. I sometimes get characterized as anti-testing, which is inaccurate. I am in favor of high-quality assessments and using them for improving teaching and learning, high-quality curriculum and teacher development. I think that in other countries that's what they do.

What is the role of teachers' unions in successful countries?
Other countries put a lot of energy into recruiting the best and the brightest into teaching, training them very intensely, making sure they have professional training. They undoubtedly have ways to get rid of incompetent teachers, but they put a lot of effort on how to be sure that the teachers are competent in the first place. In this country, I've been advocating for a long time, how do we get teachers that are highly competent in the first place. If we're thinking about what we need to do to be competitive with other nations, we need to be thinking about building a supply of great teachers and continually improving their skills, rather than only focusing on the bad teachers when we haven't helped them learn how to be good.

So which countries are going to be the models for the Obama administration?
Certainly we have a different context both politically and in how our education system is organized, but I will say that if you look at some of the highest-achieving states in the United States, we do have this wide variability. Although we rank low on the international assessments, our most high-achieving states and our most high-achieving students are getting an education that has features you would see in other countries. States like Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey—those are states that have attacked standards-based reform, with a focus on developing more thoughtful assessments, tying those to teacher development. They put in place very strong literacy-development programs in the elementary schools, and literacy coaches. You see the same kind of standards-based literacy work in countries that have had strong improvements in their performance. We can learn some things from other countries, but we can also learn some things from within our country by looking at places that are succeeding.

Obama's proposals require money—the funding for prekindergarten, the army of new teachers. How will that happen during the credit crisis?
You have to think about education as an investment. This is me speaking, not the administration speaking, but we're talking about a $700 billion recovery package. The total education investment represented in President-elect Obama's education plan was $29 billion, and that's tiny. For every dollar you spend to make sure that kids get high-quality preschool, you're going to gain anywhere from $3 to $10 back to the economy in reduced failure in school, reduced special-education costs, reduced dropout rates and higher wages and taxes. These kinds of investments actually reap us benefits in the long run.

The results for the latest science and math tests just came out, are you surprised at the U.S. performance?
They were up in math, but not in science. We're not even teaching science in a lot of elementary schools, much less the kind of science that other countries are teaching. When I went to Singapore, at every grade level in every classroom in every school I visited, kids were coming up to show the experiments they'd designed and conducted. High-achieving countries are making sure their kids can be the inventors and engineers of the future. We have to really redouble our efforts.

Will we have moved up within four years?
I would expect so. It takes time to build and rebuild a system, and the financial crisis is really going to be a problem, but I think we will certainly see a turning of the corner if the kind of investments that have been proposed are indeed made. And in eight years, you will see a substantial difference in where the United States is positioned.