A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation

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In each case, we see an absolute conviction, starting at the top and fully shared by the entire polity, that education and high skills hold the key to economic success. But we also see a moral commitment to shared prosperity, a belief that the key to shared prosperity is a genuinely high level of education for the entire population, and a determination to make sure, as a practical matter, that the policies needed to provide every child with a high quality education are implemented well and implemented in detail.

The point I am making here has to do with the way we read books of this sort.

Both the writers and the readers tend to ask and answer the question: What policies and practices account for the success of the top-performers? That is a good question and this book does a first rate job of answering it. What that question misses, however, is another question, which is: What does it take for a country that is not in the front ranks to join those ranks? The answer to that question does not consist entirely of the answer to the first question. What comes through clearly in this book is another set of answers having to do with political leadership of the kind that galvanizes action and creates the kind of broad new consensus that is required to uproot long-established arrangements and relationships.


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What comes through is the crucial role that international education benchmarking plays in creating for a country a new vision of what might be possible and the confidence among many players that is required to take a chance on abandoning a system with which many players are very comfortable. What comes through is the need for continuity and stability of political leadership.

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It is, I think, no accident that we see in Singapore, Shanghai and Japan until recently different versions of one-party rule and in Finland a country in which consensus across party lines is necessary before great actions can be taken on any important issue. In the case of Ontario Province, in Canada, another of the examples we are shown by Stewart, all the reported progress took place under the leadership of one Premier, who placed education reform at the epicenter of his political agenda.

Whether it was one-party rule, cross-party consensus or the extended leadership of one elected official, what all these cases have in common is political continuity that has lasted long enough to enact and implement major changes in the nature of the entire education system. In all of these cases, the political leaders involved took the time to mobilize broad public support for their education agendas. In almost every case, they made their case on the wings of a perceived existential economic threat, or, in the case of the developing countries, an enormous economic opportunity.

Importantly, even in the case of one-party rule, the profound changes in education system design that Stewart reports on were not shoved down the throats of any of these countries. Stewart shows us how each of these countries, cities and provinces decided on their programs of reform only after making mighty efforts over a long period of time to gain wide input from their professional educators and the public at large.

A World-Class Education by Vivien Stewart

In every case, professional educators were partners in the reform effort, not the opposition to be overcome in a hostile takeover. What are we to make of this? Should we conclude that the countries most likely to lead the next era of education reform are those with one-party rule or consensus-style politics? If you believe, as I do, that only those countries can achieve the highest incomes, then that would be tantamount to saying that, with the exception of those countries sitting on unusual concentrations of natural resources, the richest countries in the world will be those with one-party rule or consensus-style politics.

The record, I think, shows that it will be harder, but by no means impossible, for countries with rough-and-tumble multiparty politics to scale this ladder. We see how China, with an education system totally devastated by Mao Tse-Tung, its schools and universities closed, its educators fired and sent to do manual labor in the countryside, determines to telescope a development process that usually takes forty or fifty years, to do whatever it will take to become a front-rank education power on the global stage—and succeeds!

We see how Singapore, on a small island with no resources other than its strategic position astride the route between two giant oceans, with no school system to speak of, riven by ethnic rivalry, despised by its much larger neighbors and poor as a church mouse, nonetheless uses education and job training as the spearhead of its strategy for vaulting into the top ranks of the industrial nations.

And then there is Finland, which, after World War II was a sleepy agricultural nation whose education system lagged far behind that of its much larger neighbors, so used to being in the shadow of Sweden that it was astonished to learn that their country, having ignored the conventional education reform wisdom of its betters for years, had beaten every other European nation in the first PISA rankings and has maintained that position ever since. What comes through is a story in each case of fierce national determination, a kind of educational hunger that, in each case, transcended political rivalries and was not to be denied.

In each case, we see an absolute conviction, starting at the top and fully shared by the entire polity, that education and high skills hold the key to economic success.

A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, Feb/2012

But we also see a moral commitment to shared prosperity, a belief that the key to shared prosperity is a genuinely high level of education for the entire population, and a determination to make sure, as a practical matter, that the policies needed to provide every child with a high quality education are implemented well and implemented in detail. The point I am making here has to do with the way we read books of this sort. Both the writers and the readers tend to ask and answer the question: What policies and practices account for the success of the top-performers?

That is a good question and this book does a first rate job of answering it. What that question misses, however, is another question, which is: What does it take for a country that is not in the front ranks to join those ranks? The answer to that question does not consist entirely of the answer to the first question.

What comes through clearly in this book is another set of answers having to do with political leadership of the kind that galvanizes action and creates the kind of broad new consensus that is required to uproot long-established arrangements and relationships. What comes through is the crucial role that international education benchmarking plays in creating for a country a new vision of what might be possible and the confidence among many players that is required to take a chance on abandoning a system with which many players are very comfortable.

What comes through is the need for continuity and stability of political leadership. It is, I think, no accident that we see in Singapore, Shanghai and Japan until recently different versions of one-party rule and in Finland a country in which consensus across party lines is necessary before great actions can be taken on any important issue. In the case of Ontario Province, in Canada, another of the examples we are shown by Stewart, all the reported progress took place under the leadership of one Premier, who placed education reform at the epicenter of his political agenda.

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Whether it was one-party rule, cross-party consensus or the extended leadership of one elected official, what all these cases have in common is political continuity that has lasted long enough to enact and implement major changes in the nature of the entire education system. In all of these cases, the political leaders involved took the time to mobilize broad public support for their education agendas.


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  6. In almost every case, they made their case on the wings of a perceived existential economic threat, or, in the case of the developing countries, an enormous economic opportunity. Importantly, even in the case of one-party rule, the profound changes in education system design that Stewart reports on were not shoved down the throats of any of these countries.

    Stewart shows us how each of these countries, cities and provinces decided on their programs of reform only after making mighty efforts over a long period of time to gain wide input from their professional educators and the public at large. In every case, professional educators were partners in the reform effort, not the opposition to be overcome in a hostile takeover.