“Welcome to Vermont: Home of a World-Class Public Education System” is the title of the vision statement on a quality education commissioned by the Vermont Superintendents Association in 2010. As the president of the Association at the time, I had a hand in organizing the two years of work which went into producing this vision statement and I helped author the above mentioned quote. I think the phrase “World Class” resonated with our membership because it was aspirational – we desired to transform Vermont’s public education system into a world class system.
Lately, there has been more discussion over what is meant by a world class education system. Last week the US Department of Education put out its white paper on international education strategy entitled, Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement, and in 2012 several books on the topic were published (e.g. A World Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation by Vivien Stewart, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao, and The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley). I thought I would synthesize the key concepts of these books in order to suggest policy design principles for Vermont as we begin to think about transforming our current educational system into a world class system.
- International Benchmarking – World class education systems benchmark themselves against other countries. They search out best practices from around the world and try to make sense of them in their own policy and cultural context. I think Vermont, like many US states, is too inward focused in terms of our educational standards and benchmarking. We frequently use grade normalization data from among our own schools (or regional data in the case of NECAP) to measure success when we should be comparing our students’ performance against their international peers.
- Strong Moral Commitment to the Success of All Students – Countries with world class education systems make an overt commitment to the educational success of all students, and make the necessary social investments to ensure their success. As compared to other developed countries, there is a higher degree of correlation between US performance on international benchmark exams and our relatively high rates of poverty. This means most high performing countries do a better job of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students. Vermont needs to expand its focus on early education programs and seek stronger policy coordination and alignment between social and education systems.
- High Quality Teachers – There is consensus that one of the critical features of a world class education system is having high quality teachers. This means not only creating high quality teacher education programs at the university level, but also having well developed systems for ensuring teachers continue to develop their professional skills once they enter the work force. High quality teachers in world class systems have solid preparation in both content and pedagogy. Another common feature of world class education systems is the empowerment of teachers and a shift from accountability systems to responsibility systems – teachers are empowered and responsible for the success of their students. Interestingly, in Finland the best translation for “accountability” is “responsibility.” Vermont has some excellent teacher preparation programs, but these programs are fairly disconnected from teacher inservice professional development programs and teacher re-licensing activities.
- High Quality Curricula – In many world class educational systems, teachers develop curricula from the ground up with strong connections to educational researchers at the university level. Vermont should implement an instructional development platform which connects all teachers to educational researchers in the development of curricula. Such a system should also provide opportunities for connections with other teachers and educators from around the US and the world. Such a system would better ensure high quality curricula are provided throughout all regions of the state.
- Systems Thinking – World class education systems are the result of systems thinking on the part of policy makers. In these systems, education policy is very intentional and closely linked to social and economic development, and in some cases national survival. Vermont needs to have a clearer and more coherent approach to education policy, and needs to make a stronger connection between investments in education systems and social and economic development.
The better part of the argument for the need to create a world class education system comes from the economic perspective. Globalization has accelerated increasing the number of educated workers entering the global work force, and technology has increased the need for higher skilled workers and decreased the need for lower skilled workers. In short, our students will be competing for higher skilled jobs with students from all over the world not just with students from Vermont or from the US.
Yong Zhao makes a slightly different economic argument. He believes a world class system is one which makes the shift from preparing students for employment to preparing students to be entrepreneurs. His data suggest there is an inverse correlation between a country’s scores on international education exams such as PISA and a country’s entrepreneurial capabilities: aiming for standardization of curricula and better performance on high stakes international benchmark exams might diminish a country’s capacity for economic growth by discouraging the necessary capacity for innovation and creativity among its work force.
Another cautionary note pertains to the problems associated with trying to replicate education models found in different cultures. Many of the successful education systems can be seen as a function of a country’s unique history and culture. The fact that education in Singapore does not look like education in Finland points to the necessity for considering the uniqueness of the cultural context.
Nevertheless, I think Vermont needs to put more effort into understanding what works in education systems from around the world, and then trying to make sense of those system features from a Vermont perspective. I think it would be especially helpful to consider successful systems in countries or states which have a similar respect for local control. Alberta, for example, has an acknowledged world class education system which is highly decentralized. I think Alberta’s Initiative for School Improvement is worthy of further review.
As we talk about improving our educational system in Vermont, I think it is important to frame the conversation around creating a world class system. Vermont education has much to offer the world, but we would benefit greatly by learning from the educational approaches of other states and countries.