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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sheila Pottorff's picture

When are we going to align all of our 50 state standards to the PISA? This is the problem with the US, everyone wants local control when it comes to education, and we cannot agree on what students should know and be able to do. When we figure this out, I believe our students will exceed the world!!!

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

That's a good point. Minnesota maintains a loose local control environment. Massachusetts exerts quite a bit of control. They both align math the same way, but Minnesota gives local schools quite a bit of latitude. Apparently state regulation is not crucial.

I think that Edutopia could be a force for good in that we understand the value of social production. We should be past talking about technology in the classroom and moving forward into using the lessons learned for creating adaptive schools.

Karen V. Packard's picture

I am very concerned that the newly released Common Core Standards include the NCLB focus on minute reading skills as foundational to reading. That part is way too specific to fit Linda's call for broad standards. I'm sure no country with inquiry based curriculum wastes time with these drill and kill approaches to reading. We need an emergent literacy curriculum that focuses on the child's natural disposition to wonder (inquire) about print and discover (experiment with) how it works in a print-rich environment full of meaningful predictable books and opportunities to use invented spelling to communicate meaning. This requires teachers and administrators who value learning about language and literacy and child development and are willing to inquire and discover how to put that learning into practice in their classrooms.

Karen V. Packard's picture

Yes, I think she is talking about what might have been, not what really is happening. And I think her ideas did not fit with the Billionaire Boys Club mentality and the Business Round Table mentality that are shaping education today, or should I say shaping the destruction of public education today. That's why she isn't Sec. of Education. She has what they don't want.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

The Cato Institute released a verbal blast directed toward the Common Standards a couple of days ago. I think that it bodes well for the Common Standards movement's utility. *grin*

I think Hirsch's condemnation of testing stems from his understanding that current tests embed cultural knowledge that not all communities possess. The key to common standards testing is ensuring all relevant background knowledge is embedded in the curriculum.

Since this will help those who are invested in high stakes testing, they will support a common core framework.

The involvement of business is an historic fact we can't escape. It shapes the way public education is understood, so business leaders are de facto education leaders in this sense.

What we need are business leaders who understand that post facto storytelling isn't science. It's funny that post-modernist attitudes toward cultural and religious value implicitly support the status quo of "common sense" reforms that conflate myriad variables. This makes education particularly vulnerable.

Businesses whose livelihood depends on scientific inquiry are on the rise, but businesses that depend on social influence will always be with us. The Walton Foundation represents a brute force industrial model. The Gates Foundation represents a model of militaristic tactical thinking. How can these modes of thinking help education?

Dara "Doc" Wakefield's picture
Dara "Doc" Wakefield
Leleand Green Professor of Education @ Berry College

Since NCLB there is some question as to whether public schools are giving or taking away an education. Is an education in only reading and math a blessing or a curse? Restoring education to the public means empowering the capacities, talents, and passions of all students in all disciplines.

The stakeholders: Individuals, parents, family, community, state, nation, and world--in that order. The wrong people are making the big decisions. Federal demands should come just before France's. Another way to look at it is who invests the most in education--families, communities, states, and nation. Pay to play.

It's time for change.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

[quote]Since NCLB there is some question as to whether public schools are giving or taking away an education.[/quote] That makes the assumption there is no education or some kind of weird black hole in school systems. It also posits that there *was* education at one time. But since the general trend of IQ is upward and testing IQ is testing education, how can we say that we are "taking away" education when it is manifestly superior today in many respects?
[quote]Is an education in only reading and math a blessing or a curse?[/quote]If anyone gets education in only math and reading (highly doubtful) it is arguable that in the old days these persons would not have gotten anything at all and would constitute a permanent peon class. How can this be a social good?[quote] Restoring education to the public means empowering the capacities, talents, and passions of all students in all disciplines.

The stakeholders: Individuals, parents, family, community, state, nation, and world--in that order. The wrong people are making the big decisions. Federal demands should come just before France's. Another way to look at it is who invests the most in education--families, communities, states, and nation. Pay to play.

It's time for change.[/quote]I agree here. Leadership has been in full retreat upward to state and federal levels where goals are mandated.

We have the salutary example of Minnesota, thank goodness. Minnesota has strong local control with little of their improvement attributable to micromanagement and most to improving curriculum, standards, and professional development.

Making education reform a national crisis when it is a local event is very odd. Very anti-technological or even anti-science thinking if you don't mind me saying so. It's like visiting old villages in France and assuming the whole country is a crumbling ruin. In order to do it, one must cast a villain and the villain will probably be the teachers and their evil overlords in the union hall.

Dara "Doc" Wakefield's picture
Dara "Doc" Wakefield
Leleand Green Professor of Education @ Berry College

I probably should have said: Since NCLB there is some question as to whether public schools are optimizing or wasting an educational opportunity. As Linda Darling-Hammond's video stated, our schools have scored lower internationally and the curriculum has narrowed since NCLB. Also, as a teacher for 35 years and a preparer of teachers, things HAVE gotten worse all around since NCLB. Professional morale is not high. Back to Basics has narrowed the curriculum dramatically in Title I schools.

IQ tests are a norm-referenced measure of intelligence and yield a score based on a norm/mean of 100, so using them as an indicator of educational success is invalid. They are not increasing nor significantly alterable from an educational perspective. However, IQ scores do demonstrate and important truth in education--children have varied capacities for learning--they are not all equal. 20% (those falling below the 20th percentile) will always struggle to master what comes easily to others.

In the end, the problem is not education, teachers, or students; the problem is poverty.

Bongani Bantwini's picture

Linda will make a great sec of educ. Its very unfortunate that deserving people like her are usually the least to be considered compared to the other group. She has my vote toooo.

Karen V. Packard's picture

Education would be on the road to improvement if Linda had been named Sec. of Education. I saw her debate when she was Obama's advisor and she presented a totally different focus than is now happening. It's as though President Obama paid no attention to his own advisor.
Too bad teachers don't get to appoint the Sec of Ed.

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