Winter/Spring 2003 Vol. 3 No. 1
What the United States has learned from international studies in education often is limited to comparisons showing that Uncle Sam's kids fall short in math and science achievement. Root causes of the performance gaps are seldom fully understood.
Teachers sometimes pair off children who have different talents so that each can learn something meaningful from the other. In the same way, America's efforts to improve its education system can benefit from taking a look at teaching and learning in other countries around the world.
The federal government has boosted spending in recent decades on research that sizes up education outcomes across national borders. However, the types of projects typically funded are ill-suited to developing a deeper understanding of key issues at home or abroad, or to helping U.S. authorities craft sound education-reform initiatives. Like blunt instruments, these studies tend to identify major patterns and miss fine points.
A new National Research Council report offers a research agenda to help the nation's leaders and citizens not only place findings from international education assessments in context, but also determine the role of this information in shaping domestic policies. A good understanding of other countries' education systems and strategies can help America generate new ideas that would benefit its students and teachers as well as society at large.
For starters, U.S. administrators who oversee research in comparative education should devote more resources to scientifically interpreting practices in various countries and cultures, and to exploring how certain policies have played out in other countries. To track general trends, the federal government still should support high-quality, large-scale comparisons of student achievement across the globe, the report says. But these efforts should be balanced with increased investment in studies that dig far beneath the surface of broad surveys.
Also, more researchers need faster and easier access to data from international studies overall. This would encourage further scientific review by the broader research community, the report says. In addition, administrators should seek ways to link teachers who want to try out innovations with researchers who can shed light on the conditions that made certain measures successful.
Enhancing America's education research portfolio in this area requires a larger federal role, the report notes. Specifically, the government -- with input from a wide range of scholars, administrators, teachers, and others -- should improve the planning and coordination of the comparative education studies that it funds. -- Vanee Vines
Understanding Others, Educating Ourselves: Getting More From International Comparative Studies in Education. Committee on a Framework and Long-Term Research Agenda for International Comparative Education Studies, Board on International Comparative Studies in Education, Board on Testing and Assessment, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2003, approx. 97 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08855-0; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $18.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by Emerson J. Elliott, director, Program Standards and Evaluation, National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, Washington, D.C. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation.