Why We're Behind: What Top Nations Teach Their Students But We Don't

Rachel Roseberry

Common Core
June 2009

Are you smarter than a 5th grader? In Hong Kong, probably not.

Common Core's report on international standards, Why We're Behind: What Top Nations Teach Their Students, But We Don't, compiles tests and curricula from nine nations that receive consistently high scores on PISA (an international assessment). It's tempting to take the tests they provide to see if you can do the work of a twelfth grader in Canada or the fifth grader in Hong Kong. And that's the point, really. Could you do that? Can we do that? And by we, of course, I mean America.

This overview of high-scoring countries with rich standards does not include the United States, which continually occupies a distinctly less-admirable spot on the rankings. The countries it does include, however, are Finland, Hong Kong, South Korea, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In three essays interspersed between primary documents outlining standards from each of the nations, Common Core addresses how these countries are different and what American can do to improve.

The first essay, by Martin West, an assistant professor of education, political science, and public policy at Brown University, notes how the highlighted countries have a wide spectrum for their standards. Students are primarily tested on reading, math, and science (as are students in the United States per NCLB), but their standards, by and large, include equally weighted requirements for history, literature, art, and music. The second essay, by Sheila Byrd Carmichael, an education policy consultant, discusses how these wide-ranging standards also have a markedly high level of content specificity. In the third essay, by Eduardo Andere, a Mexican education expert, the author observes that, generally, high-performing countries do not spend much of their time worrying about how to become high-performing. Their focus, overwhelmingly, is on the development of the individual student.

This report provides an interesting international basis for arguments made over the budget and education here in Ohio. It comes out strongly against the 21st century skills movement and advocates for individual learning, which would seem to support a per-pupil funding system.

For both individual states and national policymakers, it is a thought-provoking report. Its weakness lies in the inability to make true comparisons. Some nations' standards are represented by their high school exit exams, others by seventh-grade science requirements. But its relevance is also due, in large part, to these striking visual reminders of what learning can look like. Every nation has unique problems, and, as admitted by the report, there is not a common solution. So as we stridently work toward reform, we should consider our international neighbors and use the spirit of their curricula to form our own inimitably American standards.

For the report, see here.