The Advocates Abroad: International Lessons for American Ed Reform
July 27, 2018

Education advocates are always eager to learn from successful and innovative models, and sometimes that means looking beyond our shores. While there’s no substitute for local context, Americans have long sought to study and bring back the best of approaches from abroad, recently including teacher quality work in Singapore and Finland and work-based learning in Switzerland. Here, Network leaders describe how seeing other countries’ systems firsthand impacted their advocacy work and generated innovative ideas to consider back home—including an in-depth reflection and lessons learned on international teacher quality policies from Jim O’Connor, project director at Advance Illinois (and frequent globe-trotter).

Delaware, Massachusetts, & Colorado Delegations Gather Insights from Abroad

According to Paul Herdman, president of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, dedicating time to international benchmarking is an important part of Delaware’s vision to become a global leader in educational equity and excellence. Through his work at Rodel and other U.S. foundations, Herdman has had the opportunity to visit a range of countries that are making headway on public education issues.

“No one has it all figured out, and the differences in politics and culture make direct exportation of many of the ideas tough, but the big ideas are definitely transferable,” he said. “These were amazing experiences and our team took direct lessons from Singapore that influenced our teacher quality work and Switzerland was a game changer in terms of informing our work on career pathways. In addition to the content, by sharing good meals and traveling together, we created bonds across countries and within our home teams that have been powerful in moving the work back home.”

Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), echoed Herdman’s praise for the opportunity to strengthen working relationships via travel experiences. Noonan has participated in two Massachusetts education delegations—one to China in 2010 and one to Finland and Sweden in 2012. Each delegation represented superintendents, curriculum specialists, education policy advocates, and union leaders.

“Traveling together built trust and forged relationships that were as valuable as what we observed at the schools we visited and learned from education officials who met with us,” Noonan explained. “In fact, our shared experience began or strengthened collaboration among us in the years that followed. These lasting relationships have had a major impact on MBAE’s opportunities and ability to build coalitions and work with other groups to achieve our organization’s objectives.”

Noonan added that MBAE’s policy agenda has also been influenced by what these delegations learned abroad. “In Finland, the emphasis on teacher training as the key to high quality education for all children was explained from higher education and educator perspectives,” she said.

“My key takeaway was making educator preparation a central issue in MBAE’s policy agenda, and it remains so today.”

“Seeing firsthand how education systems in other countries approach the same challenges we face in Massachusetts also confirmed that we were on the right track in many ways.”

Like Linda, Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds, traveled with a delegation of education, government, and business leaders on a 2016 trip to Switzerland where they dug into the details of the Swiss Vocational Education and Training system.  

“We’re constantly searching for innovative models that can inform our efforts to build a more agile education system, whether those are local, national, or international,” Laband said. “Seeing the Swiss approach to work-based learning in action provided a clearer picture of the end goal and the barriers to creating something similar in Colorado. With both in mind, we’re working with diverse local partners to adapt successful practices of the Swiss model to Colorado’s unique context and creating exciting new opportunities for students, educators, and employers alike.”

Globetrotting Advocate Shares 5 Key International Education Policies for Teacher Quality

By Jim O’Connor, Advance Illinois

Occasionally when my family and I travel, we’ll come upon an artist painting a nearby scene. This is generally an auspicious sign–the scenery is so good that it is worth memorializing.

If you are stepping back this summer and wondering about your team’s path forward related to teacher quality, you may be looking for a good spot on the globe to ‘set up your easel.’ I’d recommend Singapore and Finland. I was lucky to travel to both over the last year as part of Teach For All’s Policy Community of Practice and can share my sketches with you (for only 30 euros–ha!).

Imagine a place where each of the components of the teacher system—from recruitment to preparation to teacher learning and career advancement—complement and support one another. This system exists in Singapore and Finland. While they are by no means perfect, they are getting many things right. During my travels, I’ve learned about a variety of policies that are helping build a strong foundation for teacher quality. Here are five key successful practices that stand out:  

1) Deliberately recruit and select the best.

The Singaporean Ministry of Education casts a wide net for teacher candidates, advertising on various platforms to ‘sell’ teaching as an attractive career. Both Singapore and Finland start selecting from a pool that is the top third of the secondary school graduating class. They then use tests and interviews—in Singapore by a panel of experienced principals—to assess their aptitude for teaching, as well as their passion for education and communication skills.

2) Give candidates significant practice time alongside master cooperating teachers.

Singaporean teaching candidates spend 20 percent of their four-year undergraduate program (22 weeks) or 35 percent of their 16-month postgraduate program practice teaching alongside master teachers. Finnish candidates complete their placement in a special teacher training school (like a teaching hospital). Cooperating teachers working at these teacher training schools earn a higher salary.

3) Support all novice teachers.

All new Singaporean teachers take part in a formal, two-year induction program while teaching only 80 percent of the workload of an experienced teacher. With this time freed up, these beginning teachers plan lessons, observe others, receive mentoring and engage in induction activities.

4) Focus on teacher development.

 All Singaporean teachers receive 100 hours of paid professional development annually to work on lesson preparation, observe other’s lessons, or participate in learning communities within and across schools.

5) Offer teachers more time collaborating with peers and less time with students.

Finnish teachers spend 550 hours with students each year while U.S. teachers spend over 1,051 hours with students, almost twice as much. The Finnish schedule allows for more peer collaboration among teachers and a more flexible schedule. In addition, the Singaporean system provides career ladders that suit teachers’ diversified aspirations. The selection, early support, professional development and career progression leads teachers to remain where they are. Only 3 percent leave teaching in Singapore each year—this is low by international standards.

These critical elements gave me a new perspective on the teaching profession. We could do well to emulate some of them in the United States, crafting a scene that might encourage others to throw up an easel and capture the landscape.


Eric Eagon

Eric is PIE Network's Senior Director, Educator Voice and Policy

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