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Closing the Achievement Gap from an International Perspective

Julia V. Clark, editor
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Russell Jay Hendel
, on

Why? Why do some countries, such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea, succeed in creating a very high and uniform level of education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); while other countries, including the United States, do not so succeed but have achievement gaps, that is, gaps in achievement between various groups?

This comprehensive book invites 25 authors to answer these two questions. And the questions are indeed answered!

The book cites statistics comparing several dozen countries worldwide with respect to their teaching systems and teaching accomplishments. These statistics come from such efforts as OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. Comparing many countries facilitates observation of worldwide commonalities of both good teaching systems with relatively uniform achievement as well as teaching systems with gaps.

There are statistics on everything: For example, did you know that 4-year olds from low-income families may have, on average, one third the working vocabulary of 4-year olds from middle income families? This statistic shows how inequality in economic status affects early childhood learning, with a consequent significant contribution to the “gap”.

The book has something for everyone anywhere on this planet. The book is organized into seven parts: A powerfully written introduction followed by discussions of education in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

There is much to read in the book but I will make do with answering the first question in the opening paragraph: what do countries with a high level of educational uniformity do to achieve this uniformity? They do the following:

  • National Curriculum: There is one national curriculum, applicable to all students. There are no multi-tracks. The curriculum emphasizes higher order thinking, inquiry and projects.
  • National Matriculation Exams: There is a uniform set of matriculation exams which determine entry to college. All students have the same opportunities of college if they but pass the exams. Exam questions emphasize higher order thinking skills and contain open ended questions.
  • Teachers: Teachers are treated as professionals; their salaries are set nationally to be competitive with engineers and other professions. Teachers are connected with mentors and special school experiences (for example schools linked with a university) where they gain the experience they need. Ideally, teachers meet primary, secondary and tertiary certifications, have a major in their field of teaching or the education of their field of teaching and have at least three years of experience. Adequate access to extended teachers, that is, tutors, is also important; achievement gaps can be significantly narrowed by a good tutoring system.
  • Gap Incentives, National Ministry: The entire education system is overseen by a ministry of education that preserves the uniformity, preserves standards and sets goal. Most importantly, the ministry provides incentives for high quality teaching in rural or poor areas. The incentives may consist of higher salaries, bonuses, more opportunities for promotion, smaller class sizes, and various other assistance.

The above list clarifies why certain countries have gaps. For example, in the United States, despite its strong commitment to education, there is no national curriculum, no national matriculation exams and no national ministry. Rather, schools are funded by local property taxes and state funding. It follows that richer communities will attract good teachers while poorer communities will attract less qualified teachers. Furthermore, as explained above, in the poorer or rural areas, early childhood learning experiences are severely disproportionate to those in richer areas. Less qualified teachers coupled with the lack of early childhood learning experiences contributes to gaps in achievement.

In a book of this breadth, minor oversights are inevitable. There are countries where the successful effort is not national but local. One example, mentioned in the book, is the beautiful work being done in Flinders in Australia. The book omits mention, however, of the pioneering work of the AMIT network of schools in Israel. Israel does have a national matriculation exam used for entry into college and the army. The national average passing rate is in the high fifties or low sixties; contrastively, AMIT has achieved a remarkable uniform 80%+ passing rate throughout its network; it has achieved this in areas that are rural with severe poverty and frequent terrorism. It has achieved this using the techniques mentioned above: Creating uniform goals (within its network) without multiple tracks, creating a strong mentoring system for principals, teachers and pupils, using funding as incentive against gaps, including recruiting outstanding scholars as teachers and principals, emphasizing one-on-one teacher-student tutoring, small classes, frequent assessments, and in their more advanced schools emphasizing full use of modern technology with differentiated teaching focused on each individual student. Their latest project is co-partnering with Harvard scholars to create a teachers institute which will strongly uniformize teacher skills throughout the network.

In conclusion, I believe this book answers more questions than it raises. Anyone seriously involved in administering education should read this book to gain from the worldwide experiences of success.

Russell Jay Hendel (RHendel@Towson.Edu) holds a Ph.D. in theoretical mathematics and an Associateship from the Society of Actuaries. He teaches at Towson University. His interests include discrete number theory, applications of technology to education, problem writing, actuarial science and the interaction between mathematics, art and poetry