In a nutshell, I’ve got two things to say about Vivien Stewart’s A World-Class Education. 1) Buy this book. 2) Skip the introduction and first chapter.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m getting tired of education reformers comparing American public schools to Singapore and Finland.  I feel like very few actual ideas come from the bulk of these comparisons. Frankly, it feels like disappointed parents trying to shame me into being better.  “Singapore is out-scoring you on the PISA,” I hear them say. “Finland is, too, so when are you going to shape up?”  It’s like these countries are my older siblings who are off to law and medical school while I’m languishing at the local community college.

So forgive me for blasting the introduction and first chapter of this book, because, yes…yes…I know that our international tests scores suck. I know the world is “flat.” I know that Americans are going to have a harder and harder time finding good-paying jobs that don’t require college or an advanced degree. I know that American high school graduates aren’t as well prepared for college as they need to be. I know that most schools are teaching the same subjects the same way they did in 1971.  I know all that.

I was ready to put it down. I was thinking uncharitable thoughts about the author and wondering if this book was just another pay-me-to-tell-you-to-work-harder book that too many pundits and politicians like to throw at teachers.

I’m glad I slogged through. I’m so glad I made it to chapter two. I think it’s refreshing to finally read a book that spells out exactly what Singapore and Finland, and other “high-performing” countries, are doing differently. I was thrilled to see that these countries actually had a process whereby they reformed and improved their school systems. I was relieved to see that it took these countries years and decades to become the high performers that they are, and that they still have problems they’re working on and growth that they want to achieve.

Stewart does a great job detailing all of this. In well-written case studies, she looks at Singapore, two Canadian provinces, Finland, China, and Australia, narrating how each country patiently and persistently improved their education system.  Each vignette is a compelling read.

In chapter three, Stewart offers eight areas where the U.S. could learn lessons from these cases.  She breaks the lessons into: Vision & Leadership, Ambitious Standards, Commitment to Equity, High Quality Teachers & Leaders, Alignment & Coherence, Management & Accountability, Student Motivation, and Global & Future Orientation.

In chapter four, Stewart wades deep into the teacher quality debate.  She argues that the qualifications for teachers should be raised rather than lowered.  Rather than looking to alternative credentialing routes like Teach for America, Stewart points out that several of the case-study countries made teaching a more difficult profession to enter, demanding as much as four years of intensive training for prospective teachers, in contrast to the five-week crash course that TFA and many other alternative-entry models use.  She found that raising the requirements for entering into teacher training in turn raised the status of the teaching profession and garnered more applicants than openings.

Stewart is a fan of standards and standardization.  She argues that teacher induction programs should be well aligned throughout the country and, in chapter five, shows that she is a strong proponent of the new Common Core Standards now adopted by most states. Some may bristle that this level of conformity is un-American and that localities, or at least states, should retain independent purview over education. To counter this, Stewart does more than state that national standards and uniform teacher training are key elements for the five high-performing systems of chapter two. She makes a strong case for her positions and reminds us that many states who came together to write the Common Core Standards and not some bureaucrat from Washington D.C.

Stewart does not offer up the now-typical triumvirate of reform so popular today: high-stakes testing, accountability, and market-based school choice. She does not demand that we use high-stakes tests to rank all of the nation’s teachers and then “fire our way to Finland,” as Linda Darling-Hammond so eloquently lampooned the position of value-added proponents.

Instead, Stewart offers a more nuanced look at school reform. She understands that building a world-class education system will take vision, leadership, cooperation, time, and effort.  I found myself agreeing with many of her recommendations.

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