The first cohort of the Legislative International Education Study Group members identified from their research four elements of highly effective education systems, as reported in No Time to Lose:
- Children come to school ready to learn and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.
- A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.
- A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.
- Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.
Recently experts from high-performing states and districts, as well as the leaders of some of the world’s highest-performing systems—from British Columbia to Estonia to Singapore—confirmed for the study group that these indeed were still essential elements in their systems. Their systems are designed to be resilient and adaptable to meet current needs of students and educators; that is to say they are “learning systems on the move.” Their experts are constantly studying other world-class systems, borrowing new best practices and allowing teachers to innovate. They were well-positioned during the pandemic to adapt and embrace the challenges of remote learning, rise of new technologies and the need to remain consistently state of the art, resulting in improved relevance and effectiveness of implementation.
After a deep study with experts from these systems, the second cohort of the Legislative International Education Study Group has adopted the framework set forth in the Blueprint for a High-Performing Education System, developed by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), technical partners for this study. NCEE has been studying global trends and innovations in education for over 30 years, and the blueprint synthesizes their findings into a framework for state education systems based on international best practices. As is stated in the blueprint, this cohort also believes that a well-aligned system designed for success yields far greater results than the sum of its parts. The blueprint also summarizes research, best practices and examples that legislators and staff in the second cohort too have discovered to be the elements of a highly-effective education system and a framework for success, which are very closely related to those presented by the first cohort:
- Effective teachers and principals.
- Rigorous and adaptive learning system.
- Equitable foundation of supports.
- Coherent and aligned governance.
As the cohort learned about best practices, they discovered the following education innovations found in the highest performing systems aligned with this framework.
Well-prepared, effective teachers are treated like the professionals they are and have opportunities to grow throughout their careers without leaving the classroom.
Research has demonstrated time and time again that teachers and principals are the most influential in-school factor on student outcomes. The education systems we studied all were built on a corps of world-class, well-prepared teachers working in schools that are organized to develop their expertise. These countries take a systemic approach to developing teachers, with a common vision for teachers’ preservice preparation and ongoing professional learning.
They all have a limited number of teacher preparation programs with curriculum closely tied to core curriculum content and meaningful practice of the teaching craft. Education students often spend a full year or more in a dedicated “teaching school” learning the craft under a mentor before graduating. This is in sharp contrast to U.S. states with dozens of teacher preparation programs, some traditional and some alternative, with different standards and limited opportunities for practice and mentorship. Some states are encouraging district/university partnerships to sponsor teacher residencies, similar to the preparation in high-performing countries, but these are still uncommon.
Teacher learning and development does not end when they leave preparation programs. Some of these systems have an educator career ladder (or lattice, or career growth framework, or system to promote teacher leadership without a formal leadership role) that promotes:
- A comprehensive multi-year teacher induction experience.
- Ongoing professional learning, collaboration and improvement.
- A structure for developing mentorship and expertise.
- A strategy to develop leadership at all levels of the system.
- A pathway for teachers to move to and from the district or jurisdiction level. This ensures that state and local policymakers deeply understand the experience of teaching. At the same time, teachers understand the intent of new education policies and can act together with policymakers to innovate on behalf of students.
Even in systems that do not have concrete teacher leadership and mentorship structures, ongoing professional learning is prioritized much higher than here in the U.S. Teachers collaborate in teams to learn from and coach one another, assess students’ needs, brainstorm solutions and pilot innovative approaches. They spend less time in front of students and more time honing their craft than here in the U.S. to ensure that students are with the most effective teachers in the world.
Because the U.S. is facing a teacher recruitment crisis in many geographic areas and subjects, legislators have often focused on creating more monetary incentives to teach, like boosting salaries or providing bonuses. The top performing systems do pay their teachers competitive salaries, but the incentives to teach in those systems is mostly tied to the quality of the teacher’s working environment: their opportunities to collaborate, learn, grow and truly impact student outcomes. This finding aligns with research showing that the nature and conditions of work matter as much or more to today’s teachers as the amount they make.
If we are going to address our ongoing educator shortage crisis that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic, then we must create new systems and working conditions that better prepare and support teachers and principals in addition to ensuring teacher salaries are competitive. Building a holistic system of educator development will require a long-term systemic collaboration with universities, districts and educators. This is essential to secure a new generation of world-class teachers and school leaders and ensure all of our students are well-prepared.
Strong leadership fosters an environment where students and teachers thrive, innovate and succeed.
World-class school systems are built on world-class leadership. They require principals and district and state staff to have in-depth experience in teaching to create more trusting, professional relationships among teachers, principals and policymakers.
Principals in these systems support innovation, ongoing learning, collaboration and strong relationships. These working conditions allow teachers to flourish, and student learning follows.
This form of leadership is built on a commonly-shared understanding of the interplay between oversight and flexibility. These systems have built meaningful assessment and accountability systems that are designed to drive information both up to monitor progress and down to give parents, teachers and students relevant, timely and actionable data. These accountability systems monitor and support the system but also allow teachers and students to have the autonomy they need to make informed decisions and use their professional judgment. This kind of flexible autonomy in the framework of systemwide accountability extends to schools and districts as well. For example, schools and districts often have the autonomy to spend money as they see fit. But they are held accountable for designing and implementing spending plans in line with consistent, systemwide goals.
Personalized and proficiency-based learning pathways for students give them the agency and support to move at their own pace.
High-performing education systems meet all students where they are and give them engaging personalized learning opportunities that speak to their interests, skills and goals. Students all move along a personalized progression of learning that provides all learners the support they need to learn material at their own pace, move on when they are ready and graduate to the next stage of education or work once they have demonstrated their knowledge and skills.
But in exchange for these personalized pathways, these systems expect that students demonstrate their proficiency before they can move on.
This form of proficiency-based education should not imply that any of these systems are tracking systems that push students into “lower tracks” with “dead ends.” Instead, this is a sophisticated, nurturing form of differentiation, coupled with consistent standards for all, that improves equitable outcomes for students. It gives students the ability to learn different things that interest them at different paces and to demonstrate what they have learned in meaningful ways. Pathways have on-ramps and off-ramps to provide maximum flexibility for learners.
Building systems of personalized and proficiency-based education is challenging. It requires a foundation of forward-looking and innovative curriculum and assessment, as well as the infrastructure for students, teachers and parents to regularly share information with one another.
The systems we studied all have national curriculum frameworks that lay out learning goals and content progressions. Responsibility for curriculum and standards does not lie at the national level in the U.S., but there is much we can learn from these frameworks. They provide well-prepared, well-resourced teachers the autonomy to figure out how to teach the content best to reach all learners. The curricula include cross-cutting competencies that are important for the jobs of the future—like critical thinking, collaborative problem solving and creativity—and teachers are expected to embed these competencies across disciplines.
Students are asked to demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills through competency-based assessments at the end of each stage of their education. They are expected to move on to the next stage only after they demonstrate that they are ready to do so—not because they have fulfilled a “seat-time” requirement.
Other forms of assessment include formative assessments to monitor student progress and development and sampling assessments to monitor the progress of the system. High-stakes standardized assessments are limited to key points in a student’s education career; students do not sit for overlong standardized tests every single year, as they do in the U.S.
These assessment results, along with other forms of student data, populate high-tech information sharing systems, such as data dashboards, that allow teachers to share students’ interests, strengths and opportunities for support, especially at key transition points. Student information systems are secure, designed to be easy to understand and navigate, and aligned to the needs of the system.
Lastly, this kind of personalization requires a foundation of trust—trust in young people, with proper guidance and support, to make informed decisions about their future pathways; and trust in the system itself, that it can support a range of choices for all young people while giving them all an equal opportunity to succeed.
Supports for all students allow them to maximize their unique potential.
All the education systems we studied were built on a fundamental commitment that no child’s potential will be wasted. Some children and families require additional support, whether healthcare, childcare or financial support, in order to enter school on a level playing field with their peers and go on to thrive and achieve their potential.
Every system we studied structured these additional supports differently. Some of the systems were built on assumptions—such as centralized healthcare and social welfare programs in Finland and Singapore—that do not exist here in the U.S. Certain principles, however, underpin those systems that can be adapted to better coordinate existing systems of support in our states.
For example, some high-performing systems offer robust health and social supports to both infants and school-age children. These may include guaranteed health screenings and services, home visits, cash payments, parental leave funded by government and assistance with meals and supplies. The policy mechanisms vary, but the goal is to ensure that every child has the resources to be healthy and successful before and when they enter the school.
Some states provide some of these supports, and many are working toward guaranteeing and subsidizing early learning opportunities. While some high-performing systems do offer school-based education to all 3- to 5-year-olds, this is not the only strategy to improve early learning. Others include parent education classes, community enrichment opportunities for children and play-based experiences for young children in community centers. The goal is to ensure that all young children have opportunities to play, explore and learn in developmentally appropriate ways. Parents and families have a keen understanding of what promotes brain activity and early development and academic progress and know what it means to be prepared for primary school.
Once students are in school, high-performing countries continue to provide health, social and learning supports they need to learn at their own pace. The philosophy is that every school should have sufficient staff knowledge and skill to serve all students, regardless of their special needs. For example, students who fall behind in their learning at some point in their school careers might need additional help and support, but they would not be classified as “special needs” students in the same way they would be in the U.S. Instead, well-trained teachers recognize that a student needs additional support, which is immediately given through a variety of intervention strategies. This approach recognizes that students learn and develop at different paces, and the entire system is designed to meet students’ unique, individualized needs. Their systems are ready to meet children where they are, rather than asking children to fit into a generic mold.
In short, all children must have support to access a meaningful, rigorous and relevant education that leads them to rewarding work. Our economy and our society can’t afford to lose any child.
Career exploration and work-based experiences promotes lifelong learning for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
Leaders in high-performing jurisdictions view education as key to their future economic prosperity. Education is the engine that will propel them forward, and teachers are considered “nation builders.” For that reason, they incorporate world-class career and technical education (CTE), sometimes known as vocational education or VET, and often incorporating work-based learning, as a key component to build career pathways. The design of these CTE systems starts with a series of broad conversations about what kind of economy the jurisdiction wants to build and support. With that end in mind, the question becomes what skills and knowledge students need to be job-ready and what certifications are most valuable to incentivize.
This is an ongoing, dynamic conversation. The nature of the economy and the demands of industry are always changing. These systems are adapting to meet the needs of the future. They see this continual change as a challenge—but also a real opportunity. Artificial intelligence and other technologies are opportunities for new job and skill growth, not a competitor to be overcome.
World-class CTE systems are built on a foundation of strong compulsory education, so students enter with academic readiness, and CTE is not in tension with traditional academic study. Curriculum is aligned with economic goals. It is informed and, in some cases, designed by employers to ensure that students are engaged in high-quality training focused on the modern technical skills needed for in-demand jobs. Students work towards industry standards and earn credentials valued in the job market. Teachers and mentors have recent and relevant experience and practice in industry.
Learning in CTE can take place in many different settings: online, at work, in school-based settings or a school-worksite combination. But all include a common expectation that students must demonstrate skills of qualified industry professionals to earn credentials.
CTE programs in the U.S. have traditionally been more geared toward students struggling academically or “tracked” outside of traditional college-ready coursework. CTE is often primarily focused on student engagement and dropout prevention, rather than meaningful career education with a strong academic component. Traditionally, we have expected our CTE students to pass only two or three CTE classes during high school, with no way of verifying mastery. We have offered very few students the opportunity to engage in work-based learning, and our students rarely earn meaningful credentials that would distinguish them from other high school graduates. We have struggled to build world-class career development systems.
However, since the publication of No Time to Lose in 2017, states and districts have been making progress by looking to high-performing CTE systems, particularly Switzerland’s, as models to adapt here in the U.S.
Nonpartisan planning processes bring together all the players in the system to set broadly shared goals for prosperity and plan in cycles to meet those goals.
High-performing systems focus on the future—the future of students, the future of the economy, the future of their society and prosperity. It may sound simple, but what sets them apart is they focus on long-term planning rather than short-term wins. This requires discipline, clarity about vision and goals and a willingness to “reach across aisles” and work with different points of view. It also requires patience and the investment of time. This kind of model provides the nimbleness needed in a changing economy and an uncertain world. For example, it proved particularly well-positioned to face the immediate challenges of the pandemic.
These systems start with a shared societal understanding of education as moral, economic, social and national security imperative. They build on that common understanding by garnering consistent support for a unified set of goals and narrative around education.
This means a structured process for bringing together educators, policymakers, thought leaders and different relevant stakeholder groups to set:
- A vision for what students should know and be able to do in 10+ years.
- A vision for what the education system should look like to get students there.
- Interim goals to measure whether the system is reaching the vision.
- Policy strategies for getting there.
Each jurisdiction has pursued different strategies for achieving these goals depending on their context. Nevertheless, a few common features emerge across each of the structures and processes. All approaches began with a high-level working group representing different stakeholders that determined both a long-term vision for the education system and for students. The visions for students focused on the skills and competencies they need to succeed not only in the next stage of their education but also in work and in life. Often, these student visions were tied into the jurisdiction’s broader economic and society-wide visions, as well. All groups included both business leaders and academics with expertise in anticipating future social and labor market trends.
These high-level groups were broad enough to represent a wide range of stakeholders but limited enough to reach consensus and clarity on the vision. All groups set interim goals to determine whether the system was on target to meeting the ambitious vision.
In order for American education to adopt this approach to intentional planning, a series of profound mindset shifts will be necessary. American policymakers and educators will need to shift away from focusing on silver bullets, compliance culture and partisan wins. Instead, they will need to make a collective commitment across partisan and ideological lines to focus on long-term strategies for whole-of-system improvement to meet bold civic, social and economic goals. To be successful, they must involve everyone who has a stake in the success of our education system—parents, students, educators, business and workforce development leaders, community members and state and local education policymakers.