A recent issue of Newsweek focused on answering the following question:

If you were born today, which country would provide you the very best opportunity to live a healthy, safe, reasonably prosperous and upwardly mobile life?

Newsweek editors and writers chose to focus on five areas – education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness and political environment – and then applied data from each of those areas across 100 countries.

The overall results?

The US finished 11th behind such countries as Switzerland, Denmark, Norway and Australia (sigh) but ended up way ahead of Uganda, Yeman and Cameroon (yea!). Newsweek did break stuff out a bit – they created smaller lists comparing similar sized countries by category. We did better on some of those lists.

The article noted some interesting trends. Some obvious, some not. Most obvious? Being small and rich (Switzerland) is much better than large and poor (South Africa).

Perhaps not so obvious was their observation that your educational system can make a huge difference in where you ended up on the list. And while this is a very wide-angle view of 100 countries, the authors of the article were also able to notice a few educational trends in those countries at the top of the list.

One of the first things that they noted was that family circumstances impact success more than any other factor. By age three, the authors suggest, children with professional parents are a full year ahead of their peers. Kids know twice as many words and score 40 points higher on IQ tests.

By age 10?

The gap is now three years.

And if nothing changes, many of those already behind will not master basic skills. As in . . . never.

So what successful international educational trends can we steal?

Get kids into school early

“High-quality preschooling does more for a child’s chances in school and life than any other educational intervention.” Pre-schooled kids earn more, had better jobs, are less likely to be in prison and more likely to remain in stable, long-term relationships.

And don’t forget the parents in that equation. Kids aren’t the only people who need an education at that point. We also need to train parents how to parent.

Keep kids in school longer

Current US educational policy is currently focused on creating longer school days and a longer school year. But the economy is making this difficult – schools are cutting back on student contact time to save money.

But I gotta tell ya. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Unless the instruction is of high-quality, more time spent in school doesn’t seem to make much sense. Longer days with poor teachers, poor resources and out-dated methods will do more harm than good.

Pour lots of effort into improving teacher quality

“Studies have shown that kids with the most effective teachers learn three times as much as those with the least effective.”

Now this I can get behind. Great teachers make a huge difference. I would gladly send me kid to school longer if I knew they would spend that time with quality people. We need to spend more time and effort recruiting teachers, invest in more and better staff development, provide constant feedback and provide bonuses for top performers.

Of course, that’s the real challenge, isn’t it? How do you document the top performers? Of course, we all know who’s good and who’s not. It was the same when we were in school or sports . . . we all knew who was number one. It’s the documenting that we need to work on. And I don’t know what that looks like. But we, the system, needs to spend time fixing that.

Recognize the value of individualized instruction

This is one of the benefits of programs like MTSS or RTI. We are taking a much clearer look at individual kids and what their needs are.


And while these ideas all make sense, they are systemic and institutional. What can I as an individual do?

Not much I can do in my classroom about the preschool stuff. But I can

  • Provide high-quality homework that will extend learning outside of class. This is not an easy thing but what we ask kids to do should involve more problem solving activities, more video games and group activities that incorporate online collaborative tools like Google Docs, Edmodo, Skype and Delicious.
  • Become a better teacher. Get involved in creating and participating in a Personal Learning Network. Join Ning networks like Classroom 2.0, get on Plurk or Twitter, join a book study, subscribe to more blogs, travel more, read more books in your content area.
  • Purposefully plan to differentiate your instruction. Don’t hope that kids learn. Figure out what they need and deliver your stuff in ways that guarantee that they learn. Plan for individualized learning.

Martin Luther King once said

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

Be the minority.

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