Global Learning Alliance Conference 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.21.08 AMA recent meeting of the Global Learning Alliance (GLA) included a series of presentations from educators around the world responding to the question: “What in the world are schools doing to cultivate 21st century capacities, and why does this matter?” The GLA was established to to share ideas for moving schools and educational systems towards supporting the development of 21st century skills and brings together scholars, researchers, teachers and school leaders from China, Canada, Singapore, Finland, and the US among others.

Presentations at the conference included discussions of recent developments in countries like Singapore and Finland as well as considerations of broader issues of change and innovation. A symposium of educators from Singapore, for example, described innovative school level programs designed to support the development of engineering and design skills amongst high school students. At the same time, Dr. Suzanne Choo, of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, also cautioned that while students there are excelling in many areas like English language and mathematics, fewer and fewer students are taking traditional liberal arts subjects like English Literature. Dr. Jari Lavonen, of the University of Helsinki, suggested that many of the conditions for innovation in schools are in place in Finland. These include a long-term policy vision rather than “ad hoc” ideas from multiple policymakers; decentralized decision-making and assessment at a local level instead of standardization, inspections, and national testing; trust-based responsibility instead of test-based accountability; and collaboration, networks, and partnerships vs. competition and rankings.

Dennis Shirley, Professor of Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and author of The Global Fourth Way, also focused on the possibilities for cross-cultural learning in education. Shirley, who began his career as an education historian, discussed how examples of cross-cultural learning through history, including the way kindergarten permeated the rest of the world, could be vehicles for innovation or for maintaining the status quo.

At issue throughout were fundamental questions, however, about what constitutes “innovation”: When is a program or a practice actually “new” and when and to what extent do “innovations” lead to better schools and educational systems?








2012 Pisa Creative Problem Solving exam in headlines from around the world

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 11.41.50 AMIn a response similar to what we have seen with the release of other global rankings of testing results, the  2012 Pisa Creative Problem Solving rankings prompted a wide-ranging media response around the world.  As you will see in the quick collection of headlines we have gathered here,  the news is interpreted as good, bad, and for some, a call to action – particularly for those countries that interpret their low scores as being related to the fact that this Pisa exam was computer-based. In recognition of the fact that this collection is from mostly English-language publications, we invite you to share other articles on this topic in the comment section below.

Canada, The Vancouver Sun

B.C. students among best in world at problem solving but ‘work’ remains

“When it comes to problem solving, B.C. students are the best in the country and seventh in the world, the latest international assessment scores show. But Canada has fallen out of the top-10 math scores on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment — or PISA — from 2012.”

Finland, The Helsinki Times &

Young Finns are persistent problem-solvers, Pisa assessment finds

“On an average, boys outperformed girls in the problem-solving tests in all but one of the participating countries – Finland, where girls beat boys emphatically.”

PISA: Finnish kids best problem-solvers in Europe

“Finnish children scored highly enough to finish joint fourth out of OECD countries with Australia in the ranking, which made Finland the highest-performing European country in problem-solving. Ahead of Finland were South Korea, Japan and Canada.”

Singapore, The Straits Times

Singapore students excel in problem-solving, a global study shows

“Singapore’s 15-year-olds don’t just excel in mathematics, science and reading, they are also world beaters when it comes to solving complex and unfamiliar problems, a global study shows.”

Japan, The Asahi Shimbun

Japanese students place 3rd in problem-solving skill testing

“Japanese students ranked third in problem-solving ability as part of testing of the academic competencies of 15-year-olds in 44 countries and regions in 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said on April 1.”


Malaysia ranks 39 out of 44 countries in problem-solving test for 15-year-olds, says report

“Malaysia once again fared poorly in a world student performance assessment test conducted in 2012, ending up in the bottom quarter among 44 countries – a result that reinforces the concern that the country’s education system is in tatters.”

South Korea,

Korean students best at problem solving: OECD

“Their score, just a point behind Singapore, was the second-highest when taking into account all the 44 participating countries, and the highest among OECD countries.”

Taiwan, The China Post

Taiwan places fourth in math: OECD assessment

“Mathematics remains one of the strengths of Taiwanese students, according to an assessment conducted under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).”


Spain’s schools are failing immigrants: OECD

First the bad news: Spanish school students with an immigrant background performed significantly worse than their ‘native’ peers in the recent PISA test. In fact, there was a 39-point difference in the OECD exam which assesses practical life skills like how to operate a remote control or buy train tickets.


Mixed messages on whether U.S. students will be well-prepared for the workforce

“According to the first report from the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, American students performed just above average on a new, international test of problem-solving skills given to 15-year-olds. Students in Singapore and Korea had the highest average scores, while U.S. students scored similarly to those in Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, England and the Netherlands.”


Students in England perform highly in international problem-solving test

“Students in England have performed higher than average in a key international test to measure problem-solving skills vital to the job market. England came 11th overall, edged out of the top 10 by Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai, but outperformed most western rivals.”


Students better at problem-solving than maths, reading or science

“One in six Australian 15-year-olds scored at the highest levels in the tests, compared with the OECD average of one in five, but one in six students also scored at the lowest level and were only able to solve straightforward problems.”

International Cooperation in Education

Our monthly scan of news and reports often reveal numerous discussions of ways in which different countries are collaborating to support the development of education. These collaborations are reflected in a number of reports on the development and deepening of partnerships around particular educational issues, or as part of larger efforts addressing many aspects of society. This month’s news includes cooperative agreements that focus on issues like vocational education, technology, and system building.

Vocational Education:

One of the ways in which countries are working together to improve education is as part of a larger effort to meet the needs of the labor market. For example, Germany is working with Bulgaria on a joint vocational education project that aims to help Bulgaria make reforms to existing legislation, standards, and programs. As Bulgaria’s Education Minister explained in  “Bulgaria would like to introduce the dual education system so that there is a link between vocational education and the labour market.” The Slovak Spectator reported that Germany will also be working to build a similar collaboration with Austria.

Meanwhile, as reported by Thailand’s public relations departmentThailand, Laos, and Vietnam are working together to create tri-country vocational certification programs that will allow students with opportunities to study in each country. Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network (AUN) Nantana Gajaseni said that each ASEAN government should support the grouping of educational institutions specializing in similar fields of study as clusters, in order to push for education development in this region.


Finland and Estonia are also working together as part of a specific endeavor to develop cloud technology that will “step up” educational and technological cooperation between the two countries. According to the Finnish government’s press release, “This joint effort aims to enable the creation of cloud services in education and learning and the use of digital materials and find new ways of learning and teaching in the learning environments in both countries. In particular, we wish to help change the school culture to become more student-oriented and inspiring and promote approaches to teaching where the focus is on experiences of success.”

System Building:

As noted in Business Reporter, Denmark and Pakistan have been expanding upon a supportive relationship, as part of Denmark’s interest in “conflict-hit” Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Denmark supports civil society organizations in the area, such as the Youth Parliament, to which it has given financial aid of 3.5 million dollars. In his most recent visit, Denmark’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Jesper Moller Sorensen, highlighted the importance of education in nation-building, and suggested that Pakistan increase education spending as a means of investing in the country’s future.
A new cooperation between China and South Africa has also been announced. According to Business Day Live, South Africa is “hoping to get lessons from China on curriculum development and implementation; teacher training and development; vocational education and training; and research and development to improve basic education.” The agreement also includes a cultural exchange and the teaching of Mandarin in South African schools.


Bilateral Partnerships:

Cooperative education efforts have also been seen in countries that seem to be looking to build alliance in multiple arenas. For example, The National reports that the United Arab Emirates and South Korea have been building a bilateral strategic partnership since 2009, which is now expanding to the areas of education, cultural, medical and health care sectors. The Kuwait News Agency also reported that Canada and Kuwait are working on ways to enhance cooperation in scientific, cultural, and educational fields, and to facilitate visa procedures for Kuwaiti students and their parents.


Memoranda of Understanding:

In the news we also see multiple examples of countries signing Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on educational cooperation. Examples include:

Centralized-Decentralization emerging in Singapore

In this post, Corresponding Editor Paul Chua briefly describes an emerging conception of “centralized-decentralization” in Singapore’s efforts to enable schools and educators to support the development of students’ 21st century skills. The post grows out of Chua’s recent conversations with IEN editors Thomas Hatch and Deirdre Faughey, and with Dennis Shirley, who was visiting Singapore to discuss some of his work on convergence pedagogy and mindful educational change.

News and research on education around the world often focuses on issues of autonomy – the extent to which schools and the educators in them have flexibility in decision-making—and the role of central authorities in dictating practices and maintaining system quality.

In Singapore, while strong central decision-making was credited with contributing to high performance on international tests like TIMMS and then PISA, concerns were also raised about the degree of responsiveness and innovation that such a centralized system could support, especially when trying to shift schools to a focus on 21st century skills.

As a consequence, the Singapore education Ministry started to give increased autonomy to schools to make local decisions.   For example, the Ministry developed the Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM) initiative to take the emphasis off rote learning and to encourage schools to develop learning experiences that engage students, promote critical and creative thinking, and support students’ holistic development.  As part of the TLLM initiative, schools were given the flexibility to develop their own pedagogical approaches (e.g. inquiry-based learning approaches, problem-based learning, Socratic questioning) as long as those approaches were aligned to the intent of TLLM.  The Ministry also created “white spaces” in the schedule in which schools were free to develop their own unique courses and learning programs, such as “Introduction to Film Studies” and the like.

At the same time, however, concerns about maintaining system coherence and quality also led the ministry to retain the layer of supervision (centralization) between the Ministry and schools by creating the position of superintendent.  Among other tasks, superintendents were charged with forming and facilitating principal learning communities designed to help school leaders to deepen their understanding of the rationale of the policies to be implemented.  In this way, the Ministry hoped to lessen the pressure on schools to comply with every detail of policies and to encourage them to make adaptions for their local context that were still consistent with the overall intent of the policies.

Since that time, Singapore has pursued several other policies that reflect this centralized decentralized approach (or what Charlene Tan and Pak Tee Ng have described as decentralized centralism). For example, for many years, Singapore maintained relatively high class sizes of about 40 students per teacher. When the Ministry decided to reduce class size several years ago, however, it did not dictate a particular size for all classes. Instead, it created a new matrix of student-teacher ratios that determined the overall allocation of teachers to schools, but left schools with the flexibility to determine the optimal class size for different kinds of classes. Thus, some schools have decided to have larger classes of higher ability students while creating smaller sizes for students who are making progress more slowly (e.g. 20 students per teacher or even smaller like 10 to 15 students per teacher).

Thus, centralized decentralization is built on the premise that decision making needs to be made “on the ground” by principals and teachers since they are closest to the students and can make the decisions that respond to local conditions.  However, much as the flip side of increasing autonomy has been increasing accountability for results, from the Ministry’s perspective, centralized guidance (such as  the parameters of the schools student-teacher ratio) is needed to maintain some semblance of coherence as a system. Ultimately, the approach is designed to enable the system to reap all the benefits associated with tight coupling and a strong central authority without overly constraining the local actors, which would deprive the system of innovation and creativity.  Making centralized decentralization work, however, may well depend on the professionalism and capacity of superintendents and school leaders to resist rote compliance and learn how to make local adaptations that do not stray too far from policymakers’ expectations.

Centralized decentralization: the calibrated application of the forces of centering and calibrated release of the force of centering (resulting in decentering) in order to achieve coherence and optimal results and outcomes for a system. The approach rests on the ability of the policy maker to anticipate the responses of schools to the policy, to understand how the policy sits within the system, and to calibrate the level or point at which to apply the system’s constraining force.

India’s ongoing effort to implement the Right to Education Act

Recent reports from India show that the country is grappling with several issues surrounding the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, also known as the Right to Education Act (RTE). RTE was signed into law in 2009 with the aim of providing every child between the ages of 6-14 with a high quality, compulsory education. Yet, as outlined below, the country’s efforts to comply with the law have brought to light various issues that have hindered an already confusing and complicated process.

The apparent first step in the effort to educate all children involves enrolling them in school. In some parts of the country, such as Navi Mumbai, 80% of public school seats remain unoccupied. The Times of India quoted one official as saying that last year only a handful of the over 3,000 available private school seats had been filled. The Indian Express noted the particular concerns raised by parents of nursery school children, as well as children with special needs. As one Delhi school principal shared, “In totality, there are no dearth of seats in city schools. But when everyone is looking to get their children into the ‘so-called best schools’ in the city, it is then we have a problem. And frankly, the problem will continue till the problem of supply and demand is solved.”

Reports from areas such as Aurangabad show that private schools, which are legally required to designate 25% of their highly coveted seats to disadvantaged students, are finding ways to bypass this requirement. By altering the application schedule, or failing to post admission dates in public spaces, and in some cases even creating illegal admission tests or enrolling fictitious students, these private schools violate the RTE. As a result, civic organizations are taking up the effort to disseminate information to parents, and the government has promised strict oversight of admission procedures. However, this year the government has also transferred the admission process online, which raises questions about how those who are illiterate and/or do not have access to the internet will be able to apply for school admission at all (some reports indicate that this online system is purposely intended for “unaided,” or private, non-minority schools). Reports from Chennai show that the government has declared only a one week time period for enrolment, which would further hinder the process and is contrary to the spirit of the RTE.

Even with these enrolment issues, some reports point to a drastic increase in applications from urban poor families, from 140,000 last year to 360,000 for next year. As more and more families seek to enroll their children in school, the standard lottery admission process has proven tedious and contributed to an increase in complaints. Many of the complaints derive from the lack of transparency, which has led some parents to apply to a number of schools to increase the changes of their child getting in.

Once students are enrolled in school, concerns arise about what goes on inside of schools. On this topic, reports point to schools’ lack of compliance in terms of infrastructure and teacher training. According to, only 59.67% of students are in schools that have met the teacher student ratios outlined in RTE. Further, while RTE mandates that all teachers in the country be trained by 2015, India has 660,000 untrained teachers and 500,000 vacant positions.

Student attendance is an additional concern, as The New Indian Express reports that the Education Department in Karnataka has called for an RTE amendment that would establish an authority to maintain attendance records, notifying the parents of absent children. A recent article in The Times of India, quotes Ossie Fernandes, director of Human Rights Foundation (HRF), as saying, “there is no auditing…to check whether RTE is implemented.” Fernandes went on to suggest that if government and private schools are serious about implementing RTE, they should be open to independent school inspections.

Yet, some say that India must first address the larger issue of childhood poverty and slavery, which has forced many children into the workplace rather than the classroom. According to the recent Global Slavery Index, India is home to half of the world’s modern slaves. Despite the government’s 2012 ban of all types of child labor under the age of 14, little has changed in the past two years. With a poverty rate of approximately 25%, and more than 50% of the population under the age of 25, a recent editorial in The Nation suggests that implementation and enforcement of either the child labor law or the RTE will require the ratification of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182.

Closing the attendance gap in Australia’s schools

The following post was written by Sarah Butrymowicz and was originally published on the Hechinger Ed blog of The Hechinger Report.

Skip school and lose welfare? The good and bad of Australia’s tough tactics on truancy

What if the punishment for skipping school was a loss in welfare benefits for your family? It’s a strategy that some politicians are considering in the U.S. – plans have been floated in Missouri and put into action in Michigan last year.

Australian students in their final year of high school take a break during a conference about what to do after graduation. The country is trying to boost its high school completion rates to 90 percent.

Australian students in their final year of high school take a break during a conference about what to do after graduation. The country is trying to boost its high school completion rates to 90 percent. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Australian students in their final year of high school take a break during a conference about what to do after graduation. The country is trying to boost its high school completion rates to 90 percent. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

But in Australia, they’ve already tried it, and the experience is a cautionary tale.

In 2008, Australia’s high school graduation rate was about 75 percent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That’s about the same as in the U.S., where it’s nearly 75 percent, but it wasn’t good enough for Australian officials. Many states there allowed students to leave at the age of 15, following their 10th year of schooling and just before college preparation work begins. Thousands dropped out. So that year, the Australian government set a target of 90 percent high school completion. Within a few years nearly all states had increased the age to 17.

Still, the Australians thought they should do more. To make sure all students stayed enrolled until they were 17, officials put strict penalties in place and a series of supports for truants, such as opportunities to work with social workers. Parents could also be fined up to $11,000. And, as a last resort, parents on welfare could lose their payments if their child was truant.

The logic was simple: if parents needed the money, they’d make sure their child got to school.

Attendance did improve in areas where the program was piloted, by about 5 percent. But a 2010 evaluation by the Australian Department of Education found that it decreased after an initial bump and low-income students still had lower attendance than their peers. Critics said that the increases weren’t enough to justify the cost of the program – about $3 million a year for the trial in 44 schools.

At the same time, only a relatively small number of parents lost their welfare payments. In the first two years just 95 out of about 6,600 parents in the trial program were affected and all of them had their payments reinstated, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. In 2012, Queensland stopped cutting welfare payments to parents of truants because attendance didn’t improve.

The program got mixed reviews from parents. Many of them “perceived the program as a ‘big-stick’ approach to dealing with attendance issues,” according to the government evaluation. But they also saw some positives. Even if the strategy didn’t lead to significant increases in attendance, nearly half of parents said that “the implementation had made them think about the importance of their child’s schooling,” the evaluation said. “A further 29 percent also noted the program had encouraged them to make more effort to address their child’s attendance issues.”

For more on this topic:

Truancy officers boost attendance at remote Indigenous community schools

Closing the school attendance gap at one of Australia’s most remote schools

Tony Abbott sets new school attendance target for indigenous students

Scanning the globe

News in the last few weeks includes a number of stories on educational quality (often driven by international comparisons), with teacher quality again cited as a critical factor. The news has also included discussions of issues like early childhood education, private/supplementary education, and school inspections.  While there has been comparatively little recent news about educational issues sparking protests, the uprising in the Ukraine has been a major focus of attention. The Voice of America reports that university students there have taken charge of the Education Ministry where a “sign reads ‘Students Welcome.’ Just show an ID card and walk right in. Everyone else is expected to stay out, for now.”

Educational Quality

Stories focusing on “top performers” included a discussion with Elfriede Ohrnberger, Ministerialrätin of the Bavarian State Ministry of Education, in The Global Search for Education, about Germany’s recent improvements on the PISA tests. In a commentary on the Education Nation website “It takes keeping up with the competition,” Amanda Ripley argues that students in “higher-performing” countries like Finland and S. Korea have more challenging work than their peers in the US. (For IEN Editor Thomas Hatch’s take, see this commentary describing his children’s elementary school year in “lower-performing” Norway and the trade-offs involved – a powerful holistic, developmental educational experience, but less focus on basic skills and academics).

Although Finland is usually in the news as a “top performer,” this time in Education Week, Mark Tucker asks Pasi Sahlberg to explain Finland’s declines in reading and math on the 2012 PISA tests. The Calgary Herald reports on a former Canadian Deputy Prime Minister’s concern that “Canadians don’t express similar outrage and disbelief when international testing shows the country’s students, and adults, have been faring worse in math, science and literacy over the past decade;” an OECD report on Sweden’s poor performance on PISA was the focus of a story in the Times Education Supplement.  TES cited “everything from low teacher salaries to excessive spending on keeping class sizes small” as key contributors to the problems; and IOL news reports that the education department in KwaZulu-Natal – a province of South Africa – is getting blamed for failure to address long-standing problems in the schools.  A report presented to the legislature there identified problems including:

“Positions being vacant and the long process involved in getting substitute teachers appointed.

- Schools not having qualified maths, science and accounting teachers, or any teachers at all.

- Toilets being in a “terrible” state.

- Schools being without permanently appointed principals for years as disciplinary cases drag on.”

Teacher Quality

A yearly monitoring report from UNESCO suggests that inadequate teacher training and cutbacks in funding are key factors in underperforming educational systems. As discussed in Voice of America, the report suggests to achieve universal primary education, sub-Saharan Africa alone would need roughly 225,000 more teachers a year, or almost 60% of the number of additional teachers needed worldwide. That report also lists Rwanda, Laos, and Vietnam, as having reduced their out-of-school populations at the primary level by at least 85% over the past five years.  However, The Guardian also cites reports that explain that growth “has come at the expense of teaching excellence, with all three countries forced to recruit less qualified teachers.”

In Australia, on the other hand,  The Hechinger Report  suggests that improving teacher quality has been a key reform strategy.  Those efforts have included increasing standards for teachers to get accredited (the equivalent of certified) and work on a career ladder where teachers who take on more responsibilities can get paid more.

Private/Public and Supplementary Education

While the Asia Pacific Memo talks with Julien Dierkes about the changing status and growing popularity of supplementary education, a story in Airang News describes President Park’s recent call to reduce private education there, explaining:

“In an effort to reduce private tutoring and get students more focused on their schooling, the government will force universities to give a zero-mark on applications that include awards or certificates received outside of school.  These will include TOEFL or other English language test scores, math and science Olympiad awards, and extracurricular education prizes received from private institutions.” 

In Radio Free Asia, Andrei Lankov also shares his thoughts on the problems with private education and education in general in North Korea.

Early Childhood Education

In Slate, Claire Lundberg shares her thoughts on almost 200 years of attention to preschool education in France.  Recent legislation in Scotland should increase free childcare for three and four-year-olds, and BBC News describes the effort that will review the quality of the childcare workforce there.

Assessment, Accountability, and School Inspections

Ofsted, responsible for carrying out school inspections, has also been busy.  The Independent reports that there will be some new, unannounced one-day school inspections to try to address what the Chief Inspector called “a culture of casual acceptance” of disruptions in schools.  The Gaurdian also reports of a rift between Ofsted and Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, and, perhaps not coincidentally, a move by Ofsted to begin inspecting chains of academy schools.