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The Grass Is Greener: Learning from Other Countries

18 September 2011 24 No Comment

(A version of this post is published in Teachers College Record under Handan Xuebu: What We Can and Should Learn from Other Countries)

In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.

–Mark Twain

American policy makers and pundits are in love with some foreign education systems and are working hard to bring their policies and practices home. Others have national standards and a uniform curriculum, so should America (Chester E. Finn, Julian, & Petrilli, 2006). Students in China and India spend more time in schools, so should American children (Obama, 2009). Other countries use national exams to sort students, so should America (Tucker, 2011). Teachers in other countries receive more training in content, so should teachers in America (Tucker, 2011). “Teachers in Singapore are appraised annually” and “our current evaluation system is fundamentally broken,” so America must fix teacher evaluation and hold them accountable for raising student test scores (Duncan, 2010).

The infatuation with foreign education systems is fueled by a simple and compelling message loudly broadcast by political leaders, business tycoons, and think-tank-backed researchers: every element of American education is broken, obsolete, and in crisis (Gates, 2005) (Beck, 2009) (StudentsFirst.org, 2011), and other countries have got it all right. America’s decentralized local control system has said to be chaotic, incoherent, discriminating, and wasteful whereas others with a centralized system that ensures consistency, efficiency, and equity. American teachers are complacent, unmotivated, and ill-prepared, while teachers in other countries are of “higher cognitive ability” (Auguste, Kihn, & Miller, 2010), better prepared (Tucker, 2011), and held to more rigorous accountability standards. Curriculum and textbooks in other countries are structured and written. Students in other countries work harder. And parents in other countries care more about their children’s education.

In short, the argument goes, to save America, to retain America’s preeminence in the world, to ensure America’s global competitiveness, we must dismantle America’s education system and import policies and practices from other countries.

Some degree of hyperbole is understandable when a strong message needs to be sent, but the actual policy and practice proposals put forward do indeed show that America is aggressively replacing its education traditions with foreign imports. Before we complete the journey to greener pastures, it is prudent to ask a few questions that hopefully can stimulate some second thoughts about this migration.

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