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Foreign Intervention

6 practices you can steal from top-scoring countries Finland and South Korea.

One is a Scandinavian country with fewer residents than Wisconsin. The other sits on a densely populated peninsula in Asia.

Finland and South Korea may not appear to have a lot in common-but students in both countries routinely mop the floor with American kids on international standardized tests. The pair consistently rank near the top on Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, while the United States often fails to crack the top 20.

Commonsense strategies and hard work-not magic-are behind much of their success. We've talked to educators who've seen those results firsthand and come up with these tips that you can apply to your own school or district.

Hire Amazing Teachers-and Develop Them
One of the most important factors behind both Finland's and South Korea's success is also one of the hardest to replicate: In both countries, teaching is a highly respected profession that draws top talent.

"Teachers are at the top of the food chain" in South Korea, says William Bolch, a high school assistant principal in Grand Saline, Texas, who visited the country in 2010.

Cheryl Maloney, superintendent of schools in Weston, Massachusetts, saw the same sort of respect accorded to teachers during her visit to Finland last year. "You get the cream of the crop applying," she says.

You can't change American cultural attitudes toward teaching or the skill set of the national teaching corps. But you can do your best to hire highly qualified educators, support their development, and try to counsel ineffective teachers out of the classroom. One option is to form partnerships with good teaching colleges in your area, creating a pipeline that gives you access to top graduates.

After her trip, Maloney says, "I underscored the need to focus on making sure we're bringing in the best-and looking at our current teachers to make sure we're holding their feet to the fire and providing professional development and support."

Engage Parents
"In Finland, you see parents all day, in and out of the schools," says Gene Carter, CEO of ASCD, who has visited both countries. Parents there, he says, frequently serve on school councils and committees and have real input. "Learning is viewed not just as a student proposition but is considered to be an expectation of everyone."

When Anne Roloff, an assistant superintendent in Skokie, Illinois, visited South Korea in 2012, she saw the importance of "working with parents, helping parents understand the value of hard work and the importance of students pushing themselves academically."

Building relationships with parents can help American educators earn the sort of respect that is taken for granted in countries like South Korea. "Ninety-five percent of your parents want to be involved," says Bolch. He recommends getting parents into schools by offering education programs on things like scholarships, dropout prevention, and college entrance exams.

Encourage Collaboration
Steven Paine, president of Partnership for 21st Century Skills and former state superintendent of schools in West Virginia, says he was struck by the way teachers in Finland gathered at the end of the day to discuss student successes and challenges. "They do this on their own time," he says.

Carter says American teachers have historically viewed themselves as "lone rangers"—a trend that has begun to change, but not quickly enough. In Finland and South Korea, "there is a focus on sharing among teachers: sharing ideas, sharing knowledge, sharing strategies that work. Not just within a school but between schools."

If your staff can't or won't meet to share ideas on their own time, schedule grade and content team meetings or give teachers on the same team common prep periods.

Require Rigor and Foster Creativity
"The intensity of education in South Korea stuck out for me," says Roloff. "They really pushed their students." Indeed, the country's schools have faced criticism for their hypercompetitiveness.

In Finland, Paine says, educators "focus on teaching kids to think critically, to problem-solve, to take responsibility for their learning, to be collaborators, and to be creative thinkers."

Teachers are encouraged to be creative in Finland, as opposed to teaching to a test, says Maloney. "It's almost the opposite direction that we're going in as a nation."

Maloney says educators in her district try to "keep a foot in both worlds"—making some concessions to the realities of standardized testing in the United States, while encouraging kids to grow as individuals. "We're trying to make sure our kids are passionate, creative, lifelong learners, that we haven't beaten it out of them with our tests," she says.

Provide Constant Feedback
"In effective schools, and particularly in Finland and South Korea, the school leader is expected to monitor what is going on and provide daily feedback," says Carter.

Such feedback isn't punitive or prescriptive, he says, but aims to help teachers reach the school's goals. "Everyone understands that improvement is ongoing," he says.

Teachers will be more responsive to feedback if it doesn't feel like every meeting with an administrator is an opportunity to get "in trouble." In Weston, teachers meet with administrators at the beginning of the year for goal-setting sessions. "They love the conversation," Maloney says.

Take the Long View
South Korea and Finland didn't become educational powerhouses overnight. Both countries were in the middle of the pack or worse several decades ago. Both countries turned things around through sustained effort, not flash-in-the-pan educational fads.

"What we do often is zig to this and then zag to that," Maloney says of U.S. schools. "They stayed the course."

The answer for U.S. schools, Maloney says, lies in maintaining a "balanced" approach to education, rather than adopting the latest and greatest math or reading program in hopes of a quick boost in test scores.

Paine agrees: "It's about rolling up our sleeves and being patient for the long term."

—Back to School 2013— 

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