Comparing U.S., international schools is slippery slope

Many cultural differences exist between the high-performing nations and the United States

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April 3, 2014 | 3:12 am

Why do students from Korea, Finland, Singapore, Canada and Japan score higher on standardized tests than American students?

Gary Sanders, who substitute teaches in the Iowa City school district, offered one idea at an Oct. 16 forum at Iowa City West High School.

“I would like to know about the socioeconomic position of these other nations relative to Iowa,” he said. “Finland has free health care and preschool. We don’t. You’re comparing apples to oranges.”

Poverty affects all aspects of a child’s ability to learn, said Ann Garcia Santos, a former school psychologist and clinical professor at the University of Iowa College of Education.

“If kids don’t feel safe or come to school hungry or haven’t had a good night’s rest because they don’t have a stable place to put their head down, then they’re not coming to school ready to learn,” Garcia Santos said.

“We tend to see schools as just meeting the academic needs of the child and not how can we prepare the kids so they can receive the academic stuff,” she added.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a widely respected Stanford University professor and education researcher, said countries where students score best “have been undertaking very sustained investments in the quality of education and the equitable provision of education and the quality of teaching.”

Before anything else, international high-performing school systems ensure the basic well-being of their students, said Darling-Hammond, who keynoted this summer’s Iowa Education Summit in Des Moines.

“In none of the high achieving nations do you have children who are without housing, who are without health care and who are without food security,” she said. “Our rate of poverty for children is at the highest in the world at 1 in 4, and our safety net is the most tattered.”

Many cultural differences exist between the high-performing nations and the United States.

Canada, for example, has a firmly entrenched welfare state that has existed since the Great Depression. Health care and a variety of other social services are seen as a public right, while these ideas are controversial and hotly debated in America.

Finland, like other Scandinavian nations, has many socialist policies. The country has consistently been at the top of international student assessments, making it quite popular for studying what led to its success.

Iowa invited Pasi Sahlberg, director-general of Finland’s National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, to appear at the summit.

Much has been said in recent months about how Finland empowers its teachers to help achieve student success. In addition, Finnish schools serve as community centers for physical, dental and psychological care of students.

Finland starts providing support for families at a much earlier stage, too. Children are eligible for free day care, starting when they are 8 months old. Even before that, all mothers receive a maternity package from the state that includes a full set of clothing and bedding for the baby, as well as a picture book and a toy.

However, thinking strong social welfare programs lead to high-scoring students puts one on shaky ground. The differences in cultures makes such comparisons difficult, experts warn.

For one, Greg Hamot, a former high schoolteacher and now professor of education at the University of Iowa, is cautious when comparing U.S. test scores to those of other countries. He saw firsthand the pitfalls in comparing the education systems of two nations when he helped develop social studies tests for the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement in Amsterdam.

“We could take 150 schools in the United States and Finland and say they’re representative of those countries and say they’re equals, but 150 schools in a diverse country like the United States are going to look very different from 150 in a homogeneous country like Finland,” he said. “You can’t extract out factors like day care and say, ‘Now we’re even.’ ”

That’s not to say there’s no benefit in comparing America students with the rest of the world, though Hamot advises taking as many details as possible into account.

“Two plus two is four here and on Mars, but once you get into things like how best to teach it, then you have to peel back the onion,” he said. “All kinds of factors go into it.”

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