Here's a fascinating report on what the top-performing education performers in the world are doing. It comes from an OECD study requested by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who wanted to know what places like Finland, Shanghai, Singapore and others are doing to outpace the U.S. in educational achievement on a standard measure like the PISA.
Some interesting details from the report:
"In all of the countries studied for this paper, the national curriculum goes far beyond mathematics and the home language, covering, as well, the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and music, and, often, religion, morals or, in the case of Finland, philosophy. In most of these countries, few, if any, of the upper secondary school examinations are scored by computers and much of the examination is in the form of prompts requiring the student to work out complex problems or write short essays. They do this because the ministries in these countries have grave doubts about the ability of computers to properly assess the qualities they think most important in the education of their students."
Also, this intriguing observation on testing:
"It is important to point out that the United States has, in this realm, something that these other countries do not have, and it is not entirely clear that it is a good thing. The idea of grade-by-grade national testing has no takers in the top-performing countries. These countries do national testing at the gateways only, and some do not do state or national testing at every gateway. Typically, there are state or national tests only at the end of primary or lower secondary education, and at the end of upper secondary school. Schools and the teachers in them are expected to assess their students regularly as an indispensable aid to good teaching, but the assessments given between gateways are not used for accountability purposes, as the basis of teachers' compensation or to stream or track students."
There's much more, including interesting observations on teacher quality and equity in school financing. The report ends with a clearly articulated "Agenda for American Education." It's a very readable study and well worth a look.