What do we mean by "international benchmarking"?

You've heard it a hundred times: "We really need to benchmark our education standards to the best in the world," or words to that effect.

For a while, such talk came mostly from business leaders concerned about American competitiveness on a shrinking, flattening planet. Of late they've been joined by governors, chief state school officers, policy wonks, and others with an interest in the quality and performance of U.S. schools (and colleges).

They're right, too. To the extent that preparing young Americans to compete successfully in the global economy is an important function of our education system (along with keeping us safe in a dangerous world), we must surely look beyond our borders. We have ample evidence from TIMSS, PISA, PIRLS and such about how our kids stack up alongside their age mates from other lands when it comes to academic achievement in core subjects. (Not nearly well enough is the short version. Here's a good source.) We also have plenty of data from the OECD and UNESCO about how U.S. schools and colleges compare quantitatively with the education systems of other countries. (Once we led on measures such as secondary school completion and tertiary participation, but no longer.)

Knowing that our results are dragging, however, is not the same as "benchmarking" our own education standards and practices to those of other countries. Simply determining which countries do better is akin to saying we know which horses are ahead in the Derby. It doesn't tell us anything useful about those steeds' bloodlines, training, food, jockeys, etc., information by which we might consider revising what happens in our own pastures, stables, and foaling sheds.

Hence the call for such education benchmarking, a classic expression of which can be found in the words of NGA executive director Ray Scheppach. He writes:

To gauge our future competitiveness, the United States needs to know each year how our students are performing compared to their international peers, particularly in relation to major trading partners such as Brazil, Denmark, China and India. International benchmarking will allow us to do this...Over the last two decades, states have provided the leadership to create education standards and assessments. Benchmarking them to international standards is just the next step. Further, most of the expertise necessary to take that next step resides in the states, not the federal government. The existing NCLB framework is helpful, but governors, chief state school officials and legislators understand the urgency of international benchmarking, and they clearly understand the link to competitiveness. (See here.)         

But what exactly do Scheppach and others have in mind by "international benchmarking"? It's a generic sort of term, mainly used in the business world. (For once, Wikipedia has a decent definition.) What does it mean in education?

This was on my mind during a useful NCES-sponsored meeting the other week on international testing. Participants learned much about TIMSS and PISA and the rest, but participants such as Roy Romer and Sandy Kress made clear that, like the horse race, international testing is just the beginning. Indeed, they properly cautioned against a headlong rush by every state to administer PISA to its own students. (Serious concerns were also voiced by many regarding PISA itself, doubts that I share, but that's a topic for another day.) What they want for American education is not more testing but more true benchmarking.

That seems right, but what exactly does it mean? What do we most want to know about other countries' education standards, systems and outcomes that might help us to improve our own, whether state-by-state or for the entire nation? Reflecting on this, I offer for consideration these seven elements as a starting point. (Assume, as you read, that the countries about which we want to know these things are the high flyers, those with which we fret about competing.)

First, we want to know what's in their content standards in core subjects and at various age and grade levels. What are the skills and knowledge of, say, math, that they expect their 8th graders (or 14-year-olds) to have mastered? What about their high school graduates and university entrants?

Second, we want to understand key aspects of their delivery system. Are their schools uniform or diverse? Is the curriculum tracked or universal? Are their classes large or small? How are their teachers prepared, compensated, and deployed? Are kids assigned to schools or given choices? What uses do they make of technology? Of textbooks? How long are their days and years? What about pre-school? And on and on. Yes, it's an enormous area but, curiously, it's also the easiest to get information on. Here's a list, for example, of OECD "country surveys" on education in Belgium, and here's one for Canada. The challenge here is more like drinking from a fire hose than ferreting out and making sense of obscure information, which is what we encounter with the other six.

Third, we want to know how they assess the performance of their schools and students. What measures do they use? Where do these come from? Who manages that process? Are they true external audits? Comparable from one region of the country to the next?

Fourth, where do they set their "cut scores" or "passing levels"? How good is good enough in those lands? How well must a student perform on those assessments--what skills and knowledge must he prove that he has acquired and to what extent--to be deemed satisfactory? Do such scores matter only for individual students or also for schools as institutions? Is there a single performance level or multiple standards?

Fifth, what sort of accountability system is in place? How are test results (and other performance measures) used? Are they made public? Used to determine promotion, graduation, or university entry? Used by employers? Any consequences for teachers and principals? Incentives? Rewards? Interventions?

Sixth, how are their young people doing against those standards and cut scores? Are 30 percent of them passing? Ninety percent? How much does it vary by gender, ethnicity, age, etc? In short, how well is their delivery system educating their kids against their standards?

Seventh, and finally, how well prepared (and for what) are the young people who meet those standards--especially at the conclusion of secondary school? Are they ready for university level work? For successful employment by modern firms with only minimal job-specific training? Are they capable of working (or studying) successfully in other countries or only in their own? In other words, if we were to do for our young people what they do for theirs, how satisfactorily would we have attained our own hopes and dreams for an education makeover suited to today's world economy?

I think that's what we mean, or ought to mean, by international benchmarking. But I'd surely welcome your thoughts, too.

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