Big Thinkers: Linda Darling-Hammond on Becoming Internationally Competitive | Edutopia
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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

Harvey Hoyo's picture
Harvey Hoyo
Professor- National University- California

Linda- also has my vote-

Building teacher planning time into the school day is imperative.

Kirsten Olson's picture

Linda's focus on what actually constitutes high level work--thinking that builds capacity for cognitive complexity--is wonderful and necessary. Those of us in the transformation business can't talk about this enough. This is a useful brief clip to show to folks who aren't familiar with PISA data and feel lost about what we are doing here in the U.S. Clear, helpful, accessible, sensible. Okay, she has my vote as well for SECRETARY!

Shall we start a movement?

Jessica Saiya's picture

Wow - this is very eye-opening! I often run into this same dilemma with my current students. I often find myself thinking "You have already learned this! This should be so familiar!". She is very clear and is not presenting some new trendy reform for improvement but excellent observations. She's very objective, relying on the foundation of data and with her expertise and leadership, our own educational system would definitely see improvement! She has my vote!

Sheron Brown's picture

To Tom King: It's good to know someone else is saying the same thing. I think Linda didn't make it as Sec of Ed because of her basketball skills. She should indeed be leading our educational agenda in this country.

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