If We Copy the Top Nations

The TIMSS and PIRLS international student test results are out and it seems there are four nations in the world who score above American 4th and 8th graders: Korea, Japan, Finland and Russia.  There are another 50+ who score worse but let's do as the school critics would have us do and look for ways to reform to compete with the top four.

Fortunately we have the National Center for Education Statistics' comprehensive information on schooling around the world (OECD nations).  I'll add in a few more relevant pieces from demographic studies and let's see what changes might improve our test scores. (Assumption: our single objective for schooling is test scores.)

Time in School

Here are the comparative hours American and our fiercest competitors spend both in class and (for teachers) getting paid. (Source)

Net teaching time in hours Total working time in hours
Elementary Junior high school  Senior high school Elementary Junior high school Senior high school 
Finland  677 592 550
Japan 707 602 500 1,899 1,899 1,899
Korea, Republic of  836 618 605 1,680 1,680 1,680
United States 1,097 1,068 1,051 1,913 1,977 1,998
Russian Federation 615 507 507

If we are doing something wrong here, it is the opposite of what five US states (with help from the Gates Foundation) just announced they plan to do.  Their plan to extend time in school by another 300 hours is precisely the opposite of what the top scorers are doing.  The amount of time our students spend in the classroom is nearly double what Finland, Japan, Korea and Russia have.  But teacher contract time is similar.

  1. In the US, schools have become day care centers, places where we watch over children so their parents can work.  Our school days are six to eight hours long.  The result is exhausted students, unmotivated to do homework in the evenings and resentful of what some see as their school prison.  The onus is off of students to take initiative and on teachers to ensure they perform. 
  2. Teachers in top-scoring nations spend one-third or less of their work day in the classroom.  That means they have plenty of paid time to prepare: developing lessons, improving their skills, monitoring student work and networking with colleagues.  In the US, teachers spend over half their time directly instructing pupils.   
(I wondered even about the US numbers above.  A typical high school teaching day is 6 hours in the classroom and -- other than a one hour prep period -- the rest chopped up into 5-15 minute pieces useless for preparation.)
Cost of Public Schooling (K-12)

Country Percentage of GDP
   OECD average. 3.5
Finland  3.8
Japan 2.5
Rep of Korea 3.4
United States 3.8
Russia 2.0

 The US spends a higher percentage of GDP on K-12 education than most of these nations, with the exception of Finland. It would be interesting to see the costs broken down however.  If auxiliary services like school busing, athletics and other non-teaching factors were removed, what would the comparison look like?

Child Poverty

This year, UNICEF published child poverty comparisons for wealthy nations.  While Korea and Russia were not included, a look at how the US ranks against Finland, Japan and the rest of the developed world is telling:

The fact that American children -- in spite of 23% of them living in poverty -- rank in the top five in the world on international tests is inexplicable.  Unless of course our schools are actually doing something right.

The following however is extracted from OECD data and does include Korea though not Russia:

Comparative Child Poverty in OECD Nations (2008)
Nation Child Poverty Rate
Finland 5.40%
Japan 14.20%
Rep. of Korea 10.30%
United States 21.60%
Russia na
OECD Average 12.60%

Conclusion?  Perhaps all the attention on public schools is merely a distraction from the real crisis affecting our children's well-being.

It can be a healthy exercise comparing our students and schools to those in other nations, particularly those whose students perform strongest.  But there is nothing -- I repeat, nothing -- in the current school reform movement that addresses any of the differences between us.