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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Thinkers: Linda Darling-Hammond on Becoming Internationally Competitive

Stanford University professor and noted researcher Linda Darling-Hammond discusses what the United States can learn from high-achieving countries on teaching, learning, and assessment -- from Finland to Singapore.
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Big Thinkers: Linda Darling-Hammond on Becoming Internationally Competitive (Transcript)

Linda: In the United States now, we're talking a lot about international competition, internationally benchmarked standards and so on. And I wanted to see what is actually happening in terms of teaching and learning in other countries. So I've looked at a lot of high-achieving countries, and it became very clear to me right away that the issue is not just the standards that are written on paper. It's the entire teaching and learning system that is created in high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and others, that is very different from what we have in the United States.

So we have a number of international assessments, and the one that is most referenced is the Program and International Student Assessment, which goes by the name PISA. And on PISA, the United States scores or ranks thirty-fifth out of the top forty countries in math. We rank twenty-ninth out of the top forty countries in science. But we typically do a little bit better in reading. However, we've gone down on the international assessments in reading each year that it's been given. And we've gone down on the math and science assessments as well. So we're losing ground. And while we're pushing scores upward on the state tests that we use here, I think the reason we're falling down on PISA is that PISA actually addresses higher-order thinking and performance skills.

In high-achieving countries, they have school-based assessments, as well as external assessments that are brought together in the accountability system, that include things like research and inquiry, scientific investigations, extensive writing. Most of these countries do not use multiple-choice testing to any great degree; some don't use it at all. Kids are always having to write, analyze, explain their views, produce data, analyze data, both in the classroom and on the assessments. And so we need to point our system at these higher-order thinking and performance skills, if we're really going to be internationally competitive. So what you see in high-achieving countries is typically a very lean set of standards. In Finland, or Japan, for example, all of the math standards can fit in about ten pages from K-12. They are very clear about what needs to be taught, and when and how it builds over time, but they're not overly prescriptive.

By comparison, in the United States, many states have created good standards. In some states the standards are sort of a mile wide and an inch deep. There are 300 things to cover in each grade level, not a small number of things to do well and deeply. And the content coverage of large numbers of objectives superficially, means that we end up reteaching the same thing over and over again year-after-year, because we didn't stop and do it well and deeply at a moment in time. So I kids study fractions in third grade, and then again in fourth grade and fifth grade. Many of them don't get it. They're back at it in sixth and seventh, and there are high school students who still haven't mastered fractions. Whereas, if we spent, as many countries do, a quarter of a year on a single topic, working on it deeply, you could then understand it deeply enough to move forward. And I think this accounts for the low achievement that we see, in part, in this country relative to other countries. Take a country like Finland, which ranks first among all the OECD, or European nations, in reading, math and science on the PISA assessments. What goes on there? One thing they do is they train their teachers extraordinarily well. So they are getting three years of graduate-level teacher education before they even get in the classroom, and they know how to teach all kids well. And they focus on assessments and the teaching of deep understanding.

In the classrooms, the teachers then do a lot of work around project-based learning. You would often, in a classroom, see students working on a lot of self-initiated work, individually and in small groups. They may be creating a student newspaper and working on their journalism project. They may be designing and conducting scientific investigations. When they're studying what a fish looks like, they actually will go out and get 30 fish, and one on each desk and dissect the fish, and figure out how it operates and so on. You'll see a lot of investigation, and inquiry in every field. That's really their hallmark is to create a nation of inquiring minds. And they also believe that it's very important for students to reflect on what they've done, what they've learned and be able to improve on it themselves. Another vivid example would be Singapore. There were a group of students I saw who were trying to development a natural skin treatment to keep mosquitoes away without using artificial products. And they had developed five different products and evaluated them, and so on. They know how to design an experiment, they know how to conduct it to evaluate their results to then improve on what they've done. This is widespread.

By contrast, science is disappearing from our American classrooms. Under "No Child Left Behind," with reading and math scores driving the accountability system, in low-income schools, science is barely taught at all. And in many schools, when it's taught, it's taught as a list of facts to be memorized from a textbook, and then regurgitated on a multiple-choice test. Not as a process of inquiry and investigation. Not as a way of understanding and evaluating and learning about the world that you could actually take and apply in the world outside of school. I have been surprised in the countries that I've studied about the extent to which teachers are supported with 25 hours a week of time for planning and learning. So that when they get in the classroom, what they do is very, very well thought through. And informed by what a lot of other teachers are doing.

Interestingly, most high-achieving countries pay teachers about equivalently to engineers. So they're a bit better paid than US teachers. But it is not the pay that draws people into those professions and to stay there. When teachers are treated professionally, when they feel they have a lot of opportunity to shape the curriculum, work with their colleagues, develop high-quality practice, the morale is very, very high. The US is not a single entity. It is a very diverse group of states. So our highest-achieving states do as well as the highest-achieving nations in the world. Our lowest-performing states do as poorly as nations like Jordan and Nigeria, which are very low-performing nations. So we can't adapt or adopt what any nation is doing into our different system whole cloth. But we can learn from the experience of different systems, particularly if we think about what should or could be done at the state level. We're at an interesting moment here. The states have come together to create Common Core standards. More than forty states have been part of this initiative to show in reading and math and language arts what should be done across the grade span. The federal government is organizing itself to fund new assessments that would be tied to the Common Core standards. And will be reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has been called "No Child Left Behind" over recent years. So the federal role will be to design an assessment and accountability approach that is more internationally comparable. Allows states to undertake the kinds of curriculum and assessment work that will allow students to be engaged in this kind of higher order thinking and performance skills.

Teacher: Here's our data for our '08. This would be the first round.

Narrator: For more information about what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced by

  • Kathy Baron
  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew

  • Brian Cardello

Production Assistant

  • Doug Keely

Additional Footage

  • From OECD DVD entitled “PISA 2006: Science for Tomorrow, Impressions from successful schools around the world”, &copy OECD/TeVau, courtesy of OECD

Executive Producer

  • Ken Ellis

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Elizabeth Rose's picture
Elizabeth Rose
Principal at Cherokee Middle School/ Roane County, Tennessee

She had my vote from the very beginning and I was disappointed when she was not awarded the position as Sec. of Ed.

Ben's picture

I suspect that Finnish kids' success at inquiry learning depends heavily on background knowledge stemming from rote learning. Kids who KNOW a lot about a field can brainstorm juicy questions, sketch out experiments, etc. "Blank slates" cannot.

I know a Finn who says his history classes consisted largely of reading together out of a textbook. He wasn't complaining.

roseayn's picture

I love learning math,reading,sience,social studies, and all kinds of learning steradegies roseayn dalere gr.2 7 years old

Joanne OBrien's picture
Joanne OBrien
High School English and Career Education teacher

Instead of racing through books to take the multiple choice test with 2 open-ended questions, I've often taken half to one whole marking period to read deeply and conduct assessment through writing papers. Analysis, extrapolation often are sidelined in our high-stakes testing frenzy. Love, love these videos!

Bill Powell's picture
Bill Powell
Retired Supt; 33 years in public ed; lives in Colorado mountains w/ family

Bill Powell
Retired Supt; 33 years in public ed; lives in Colorado mountains w/ family
Posted on 3/08/2010 11:17am
Walking on water; knowing where the stumps are
Educators know the curriculum cannot be a 'mile wide and an inch deep,' if a teacher is going to teach 'enduring understandings.' Perhaps common core standards at the national level may be helpful if they truly focus on the 'critical, essential' learning targets, not just pander to every special interest group. The common core standards also need to have realistic 'diagnostic AND prescriptive' assessment components (also TOOLS, i.e., 'clickers' or other tools) that are timely, clear, and useful to the classroom teacher, so the teacher can tell IMMEDIATELY which students understand the concept being taught and which students do not understand --- so that teaching interventions can occur timely on an individual student or small group basis.

Pre and post assessments of growth are not sufficient. Teachers also need assessment tools he/she can use DURING the teaching-learning process. 'Formative assessment,' if one must use pedogo-lingo. Know when to intervene and have the knowledge and tools to intervene.

Additionally, the TIME to have collegial help in designing a clear lesson is critical. Time to PRACTICE the lesson in front of other teaching peers, is essential -- in order to get different perspectives of how the lesson might be improved. Embrace collegial advice; many eyes make wise. Time is needed after teaching the lesson to REFLECT on what worked and what did not work in the lesson, and how the lesson might be improved. Teachers (and administrators) must be professional and honor the time teachers need to create and to deliver wold class lessons.

Teachers in other countries who are successful do not have to supervise students the entire day. These teachers have 1/3 to 1/2 their day in working collegially with fellow teachers in designing and practicing world class lessons. Maybe we should have fewer student-teacher contact hours so teachers are better prepared (collegially) to teach authentic 'world-class' lessons. Perhaps the Purtian work-ethic to be with "MY STUDENTS' for the entire day --- added to the demands of the schools to be 'child care centers' work against reorganizing the teacher's time in a more effective way. Teach less, and teach better. If we want to walk on water as teachers, let's help relocate where stumps are .... or should be.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

[quote]Why isn't Linda Darling-Hammond the Secretary of Education? Anyone? Anyone?[/quote]

We actually have an article which examined all of the potential candidates for Secretary of Education:

And here's a blog titled, "The New Secretary of Education Needs Better Ideas" :

Lastly, we also have a video on Arne Duncan:

Scott Smith's picture
Scott Smith
Curriculum Director / Visalia USD, Calilfornia

Dr. Hammond's ending comments seem like a disconnect to beauty of her earlier discussion. If the re-work of NCLB produces a national curriculum companioned with a national test then we tighten the noose of multiple-choice tests that chokes a project-based curriculum.

John Sanderson's picture

I was for Dr. Darling-Hammond from the beginning, and nothing Mr. Duncan has done or said has changed my opinion on that one. As to re-teaching math concepts over and over and over without accomplishing anything, AMEN and AMEN! I'm a retired elementary school principal (17 years), and though not a "math person," as such, even I could see the ridiculousity (I AM a word person, you see, making them up as I go) in spending the first six weeks or more of every school year from 3rd through the 6th grade on the exact same math concepts. The kids who "get it" are bored stiff, and the kids who never "got it" still don't, and they simply maintain or deepen their frustration level with a subject they are convinced they can't learn, because nothing is presented any differently - just more of the same, but lots faster!

One area unmentioned in the video, but that I also have great concerns with, is in the area of social studies - government, geography, economics, history. I actually am a former high school history/sociology/economics/civics teacher, and I find the short shrift given these days in most schools (and not just elementary schools, either) to some grounding in critical thinking and the "basics" of the social sciences is appalling and profoundly shortsighted.

Finally, Scott Smith above raises a valid point, as well. An emphasis on consistent national "accountability" and/or assessment processes does not seem to jibe with an emphasis on project-based learning and critical thinking. I'm sure Dr. Darling-Hammond has considered the contradictory nature of what she is saying here, so I guess I need to go back and reread some of her work to see if I can figure it out.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who took the time to express themselves. I enjoy reading and considering thoughtful comments.

Deborah Cordier's picture

Interestingly,there is no mention of language, in this case foreign language (s) , and learning. Research has shown that learning a second,3rd and even fourth language adds to the ability to learn inquiry skills throughout the school experience and beyond. Finnish is one of the most difficult languages to learn.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) (1971) (including both the Middle years and more recently the Primary years programs) has had a tested history of embracing the learning and teaching models found in many foreign countries. I wonder how many are top-listed PISA countries?
Deborah Cordier Ph.D. (Second Language Acquisition/Instructional Technology)

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

Darling-Hammond is recounting surveys from prior to 2007. Since then, Minnesota and Massachusetts adopted the Singapore Math process. Here is a copy of the presentation from this year's symposium led by Patsy Wang-Iverson and Patrick Gonzales (his presentation):
Why didn't she talk about Physics First, Project 2061, or Singapore Math? She is also not putting the TIMSS follow-up research into classroom practice into the perspective of PISA and Physics First research which finds several common characteristics. The most important is that teachers need a degree in their subject.

I'm disappointed the EduTopia community is not on top of this considering its age and the background implied by the profiles of the commenters.

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