What Can Top-Performing Education Systems in Other Countries Teach Us About Improving Education in WI?

On Monday morning (April 3), the School Administrators Alliance is hosting an event at the Concourse Hotel in Madison entitled, “What Wisconsin Can Learn About Education Innovations From the World’s Top Performing Countries.”

This gathering will explore a bipartisan report from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), entitled “No Time to Lose,” which carefully examined the education policies and practices of high-performing countries with an eye toward learning what it might take to build a world-class education system state by state here in the U.S.

(Editor’s Note: The October issue of Wisconsin School News included a story outlining this report and its recommendations.)

olsenThe report prescribes an urgent call to state action and recommends America’s state legislatures and public schools should study and learn from top-performing education systems in other countries to improve education in the U.S. (see previous post.).

State Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon, pictured) was a member of the bipartisan study group, which talked with experts from around the world and visited several top-performing countries.

The WASB Government Relations staff sat down with Sen. Olsen shortly after the November election to discuss what he learned from participating in e study and how it might inform education reform efforts here in Wisconsin.  

WASB: How did you get involved with this study?

Sen. Olsen: I was the co-chair of a National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) standing committee on Education along with Joyce Elliot, a Democratic state senator from Arkansas. At an NCSL convention a couple of years ago we had a presentation on PISA test results and how students from other nations score higher than American students.   It got us thinking that just having a presentation was not good enough, that we needed to look at why these other countries are outperforming us and try to identify what we might learn from those other countries in order to improve student learning in the U.S.

(Editor’s Note: PISA is an acronym for the Program for International Student Assessment. PISA is a worldwide study coordinated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries. PISA measures 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading in both OECD member and non-member nations. It was first performed in 2000 and since then has been repeated every three years. The major domain of study rotates between mathematics, science, and reading in each cycle. PISA also includes measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as collaborative problem solving. PISA testing is conducted in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

By design, PISA emphasizes functional skills that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling. PISA is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries, and is conducted in the United States by NCES. Data collection for the most recent assessment was completed in Fall 2015. PISA 2015 assessed students’ mathematics, reading, and science literacy in more than 70 countries and educational jurisdictions.)

WASB: What were your biggest “takeaways” from your involvement in this study?

Sen. Olsen: What successful countries do is in many ways exactly the opposite of what we’re doing in the U.S. The most successful countries are selective about who can become a teacher. They have rigorous standards to become a teacher and create a highly professional work environment for their teachers. They pay their teachers well, and they have large class sizes, often as many as 30 to 40 students in a class. We’re going the other way on teacher preparedness with all our various pathways to earning a teaching license. We don’t pay our teachers as well and we’ve gone down in terms of the class sizes we think are most conducive to learning.

Many successful nations provide mentors for teachers and employ one-on-one tutoring to assist student who are struggling to learn particular concepts or skills. Students in those countries don’t have homework. Typically, they go home for dinner then come back to school to study at night. And high- performing countries also tend not to have a lot of achievement testing; however, the tests they do have are high-stakes tests that carry real consequences for students.

Interestingly, when we asked people in successful countries whether they have issues with bullying or discipline, they said “No. That’s a serious black mark against a student.” Getting into college or a university is so competitive that students can’t afford to accumulate black marks against them.

Most of these nations have one national college entrance test. If students are successful on that test they go to college for free. If students are not successful on these tests, it’s not good for the family. Families depend on their children to succeed. On the down side, many of these nations have a high suicide rate among young people because of the pressure to succeed in school and on these high-stakes tests.

WASB: What are the first steps Wisconsin needs to take in order to get on track to emulate the education policies and practices of the high-performing countries you studied?

Sen. Olsen: The DPI needs to bring together a group of players—to get “buy-in” about what we’re trying to do. We need to get folks together to decide we’ve going to do this and then have the patience to see it through. This is not a “one-time thing.” It took these other countries a number of years to get it right. They used evidence-based approaches. They stopped doing things that don’t work and they kept doing things that were shown to work to boost student learning.

In America, everybody’s looking for a ‘silver bullet.’ In high-performing countries, it’s not a silver bullet that produces the results, but the way you do business. It’s a serious change.

A big challenge is figuring out what comes first. If we’re going to deal with the teaching profession, for example, that takes money.  Standards to be in the teaching profession will be much higher but once you’re in the profession you will be paid accordingly with those higher standards.

WASB: What do you see as potential obstacles to Wisconsin being able to incorporate the educational policies and practices of high-performing countries? What is the role for “local control” in those systems?

Sen. Olsen: We don’t have the patience. And the culture has to change to really value education. A lot of people don’t value education or they have issues in their life that get in the way of supporting their children’s education. As a result, a big challenge is having every kid coming to school ready to learn. That’s not the school’s job, it takes a community. Our population is getting poorer and that’s a barrier.

We also need to have a system of schools in our state that we all have trust in, including trust that our graduates will know and be able to do what they need to do in order to succeed in life after high school.

Wisconsin values local control; however, local control doesn’t mean you get whatever you want. There has to be a system in place with rigorous standards, with a high-quality system for preparing teachers and where school districts have to be accountable for the product they put out.


WASB: For many, many years Wisconsin has prided itself on the quality of its K-12 education system. Did what you learned by taking part in this study change your perception of Wisconsin schools in any way? If so, in what way(s)?

Sen. Olsen: We’re good compared to other states and we have some school districts that perform very well. But our population is changing and other states are going to be implementing some of these things identified in the study that will raise the performance of their schools. In fact, some of the biggest improvements have been seen in states that have been seen historically as low–performing. These states are looking at the broader picture and where they want to take their education systems. They’re not just preparing kids to meet current standards but requirements are getting higher all the time.

Wisconsin has a great system, but is it going to be the system that brings us into the 22nd century? What the system needs is strong leadership from the DPI that is innovative not regulatory. And there needs to be serious leadership to move this reform effort forward because it is going to be so difficult.

WASB: The study report is titled “No Time To Lose.” Do you share the sense of urgency the title suggests?

Sen. Olsen: Yes I do. Everything takes time in government and education to change. The world changes at a whirlwind pace and if we’re not behind now, we will be soon if we don’t make some serious changes.