The International Experience: What U.S. school can and cannot learn from other countries

Paul Peterson
Year of publication: 
Education Next

Undoubtedly, the United States has much to learn from education systems in other countries. Once the world’s education leader, the U.S. has seen the percentage of its high-school students who are proficient trail that of 31 other countries in math and 16 countries in reading, according to a recent study by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) (see “Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?” features, Fall 2011). Whereas only 32 percent of U.S. 8th graders are proficient in math, 50 percent of Canadian students and nearly 60 percent of Korean and Finnish students perform at that level. It may be misleading to point out that 75 percent of Shanghai’s students are proficient, as that Chinese province is the nation’s most advanced, but in Massachusetts, the highest-achieving of the states, only 51 percent of the students are proficient in math.

Given these performance disparities, it is only natural to think that there is something to be learned from practices elsewhere. Yet it is not easy to figure out what institutions and practices will translate into a different cultural milieu or how to do it. In the larger world of governmental constitutions, efforts to insert U.S. arrangements into distant political cultures have failed more often than not. Much the same could happen in reverse if the United States attempted to fix its schools simply by copying something that seems to work elsewhere.

It is tempting to undertake an in-depth study of those places that are performing at the highest levels—China’s Shanghai province, Korea, Finland, Singapore, Japan, the Netherlands, and Canada, for example. But a proper comparison requires that one contrast what successful countries do with the mistakes made by the less successful ones. International comparisons should look at information from all countries and adjust for factors that affect student performance, even though such rigorous studies typically face their own challenges, including collecting the requisite data. Moreover, countries are different across so many dimensions (from the political system to the cultural prestige of the teaching profession) that it is typically difficult to attribute differences between countries to any specific factors.

For these reasons, learning from international experience can be a bit like reading tea leaves: People are tempted to see in the patterns whatever they think they should see. But for all the hazards associated with drawing on international experience, the greatest risk lies in ignoring such information altogether. Steadfastly insisting that the United States is unique and that nothing is to be learned from other lands might appeal to those on the campaign trail. But it is a perilous course of action for those who wish to understand—and improve—the state of American education. If nothing else, reflection on international experience encourages one to think more carefully about practices and proposals at home. It is not so much specific answers that come from conversing with educators from around the world, as it is gaining some intellectual humility. Such conversations provide opportunities to learn the multiple ways in which common questions are posed and answered, and to consider how policies that have proved successful elsewhere might be adapted to the unique context of U.S. education.

That, perhaps, is the signal contribution of the August 2011 conference on “Learning from the International Experience,” sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. Many who attended said the conference had sparked conversations well beyond the usual boundaries on thinking about U.S. education policy, whether the issue was teacher reforms, school choice, the development of common standards and school accountability, or the promise of learning online.