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Research Stories

Top Performing Education Reform [Research Stories]

–This post is written by UHP student Khadija Lalani, who worked with other UHP students Siddhi Salvi and Melissa Gedney as research assistants for Professor Laura Engel and Professor James Williams.

Khadija and Prof. Engel

Education reform. A term casually tossed around in conversation to refer to the need for U.S. public schools to produce more globally competitive and academically prepared students. But what exactly does reform entail and to what extent should we seek to emulate polices from top-performing countries? Accountability, testing, and standardization are the most frequently analyzed components of successful education systems. Although borrowing practices from high achieving countries can be useful, it is critical to first understand how and why top-performing countries are thriving and to contextualize successes within a cultural and normative framework. Comparative research and analysis of international education systems, as well as the dynamic, complex, and multifaceted societies in which they function provides meaningful insight for educational improvement and reform in the United States.           

This semester, along with two other honors students (Siddhi Salvi and Melissa Gedney) I served as a research assistant on the project, Borrowing and legitimizing education policy: What can be learned from top-performing countries? The project is led by Professors Laura Engel and James Williams of the International Education Program in GSEHD, and also includes four GWU graduate students and one GWU alum. During the spring, each research assistant spent the semester researching the education system of one or two countries included in the study: Canada, England, Finland, Japan, Korea, and Singapore. The group met bi-weekly to share their results.

Ontario, Canada was the focus of my research and provides and interesting case as a top-performing country with relatively low-stakes testing. The Education Quality and Accountability Office is primarily responsible for administering standardized tests, which are more for the purpose of evaluating quality of curriculum implementation rather than assessing students’ individual performance and academic abilities. Furthermore, student scores provide basis for principal and teacher accountability, and are used to formulate school board improvement plans. The Secondary School Literacy Test is a requirement for Ontario students to receive a high school diploma, but there are multiple opportunities to pass the exam. Although Ontario participates in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the purpose of large-scale assessments and standardized tests are largely for the purpose of improving teacher and school accountability and curriculum instruction.

Ontario’s approach significantly contrasts with the United States’ method of using high-stakes testing to motivate teacher performance and student achievement. Unfortunately, the examinations mandated by No Child Left Behind have increased the stakes of testing but have failed to meaningfully address quality of curriculum instruction and school accountability. The Canadian case provides a fascinating example of high student achievement and effective teacher accountability methods in the context of a low-stakes testing environment.

The spring phase of this project ends in May 2012. The project team will re-convene this summer to continue their research. Results from the research will be used to publish academic journal articles, conference papers, a possible book, and grant applications. A paper from this project, co-authored by Dr. James Williams, Dr. Laura Engel, and Dean Michael Feuer of GSEHD, entitled, The global context of practice and preaching: Do high-scoring countries practice what US discourse preaches? was presented in December 2011 at the World Educational Research Association (WERA) in Taiwan. For more information on the project, please contact Dr. Laura Engel at lce@gwu.edu