Lessons From Abroad: Connecting international best practices to Delaware

April 17th, 2012

Category: Policy and Practice

I just got back from a trip to Europe last week, my first time overseas. And while I won’t bore you with the details (except one below), reading this article published by The Atlantic highlights something that hit home for me during my trip. In our current education reform debate, we shouldn’t hesitate to look locally and globally to find what’s working, but efforts to simply mimic others without tailoring it to our local context and culture are a fool’s errand.

As a non-education example of this, one of the stops on our trip was to Munich. As we walked around the city, one thing became crystal clear – Germans are very risk averse. It was not uncommon to stand at a red light for over a minute, despite the fact that no cars were coming in either direction. In contrast, taking a minute stroll around New York City will quickly remind you that jaywalking is a more than common occurrence. Upon reflection, I began to ask myself how we could emulate this behavior back home. Should we simply enact stricter laws that increase penalties for jaywalking? Should we build up a robust enforcement mechanism, such as cameras, that fine people found to be breaking the rules? I think, to most, the answer to those questions is no, since our natural instinct is to value independence and risk-taking – two things that we should encourage within our schools and classrooms.

Circling back to the Atlantic article, the authors argue we should adopt a common curriculum that all teachers use, increasing their ability to collaborate. And while I agree that a common curriculum might help us reach this goal, it fails to take into account, just as how we cross the street, the values that define our culture. Most teachers don’t enter the profession in order to teach a pre-determined curriculum; instead, they dream of exploring their favorite books with their students and working with their colleagues to design lessons. This is one of the beauties of the Common Core – the standards are the same, but the path each educator chooses to get there can vary.

In addition to curriculum, the author fears that current reform efforts, particularly merit pay, might limit teachers’ willingness to collaborate*. Again, I think this doesn’t take into account our culture. While Finland might be able to recruit their best and brightest to the classroom, reformers argue that we are unlikely to do so when any person can look online and see their what their salary will be in 2042. I don’t know about you, but I was disheartened when I realized that no matter how well my students performed or how smart/hard I worked, I would receive the same incremental pay increase as the next person. And while the author argues that this discourages teamwork, this is counter to what we’re seeing in some of America’s highest-performing schools, where collaboration is strong and excellence is rewarded.

Fortunately, through Race to the Top, we’ve been given the funds to implement some of these international best practices with a distinctly American twist, as seen with our professional learning communities and data coaches. And while we no doubt have challenges with this difficult work (and will inevitably continue to do so), I believe that we have started something positive that educators will value in the future and, ultimately, pay significant dividends for all Delaware students.

As we continue the difficult work of implementing our reform agenda, I would argue that what’s needed now might be a little bit of that German patience. Then again, upon reflection, that just wouldn’t be our style.


*I, personally, don’t believe that paying teachers a bonus will encourage them to turn on the excellent teaching they’ve been supposedly withholding from students. However, I do fervently believe that prestigious professions differentiate performance and reward those most capable at their jobs, enabling us to attract the most able among us. This is the bigger picture behind changing educator compensation structures and roles/responsibilities (i.e. master teachers) that drive reform efforts.

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Brett Turner




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