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Executive Summary

The U.S. approach to education is not systematically informed by experiences with education in the rest of the world. Since the 1980s, many calls for domestic education reform have been justified by citing large gaps between the academic performance of U.S. students and their peers in other countries. Nonetheless, the U.S. public has been offered little evidence to explain these results and knows little about the limitations of the studies that produced them. Nor have U.S. policy makers and researchers used the limited information they do have about differences in education systems in various countries to systematically explore these results. This is surprising given both the ways that results of international comparative studies are so often used to justify domestic education reform and, even more, the ways that other sectors of U.S. society—such as business, science, and popular culture—have reached out to become more knowledgeable about practices in other countries. Furthermore, it is puzzling because the narrowness of many American’s views of education is regularly noted, alternatives are actively sought, and criticism of domestic practices abounds.

In the past decade, federal funding for international comparative studies in education has increased and has begun to expand the knowledge base necessary to broaden the U.S. perspective. Most of this funding has been devoted to improving large-scale cross-national surveys and educational indicators. Nonetheless, to date this investment has not substantially raised the level of discourse in the education and policy-making community; most individual policy makers, practitioners, and parents in



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Understanding Others, Educating Ourselves: Getting More from International Comparative Studies in Education Executive Summary The U.S. approach to education is not systematically informed by experiences with education in the rest of the world. Since the 1980s, many calls for domestic education reform have been justified by citing large gaps between the academic performance of U.S. students and their peers in other countries. Nonetheless, the U.S. public has been offered little evidence to explain these results and knows little about the limitations of the studies that produced them. Nor have U.S. policy makers and researchers used the limited information they do have about differences in education systems in various countries to systematically explore these results. This is surprising given both the ways that results of international comparative studies are so often used to justify domestic education reform and, even more, the ways that other sectors of U.S. society—such as business, science, and popular culture—have reached out to become more knowledgeable about practices in other countries. Furthermore, it is puzzling because the narrowness of many American’s views of education is regularly noted, alternatives are actively sought, and criticism of domestic practices abounds. In the past decade, federal funding for international comparative studies in education has increased and has begun to expand the knowledge base necessary to broaden the U.S. perspective. Most of this funding has been devoted to improving large-scale cross-national surveys and educational indicators. Nonetheless, to date this investment has not substantially raised the level of discourse in the education and policy-making community; most individual policy makers, practitioners, and parents in

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Understanding Others, Educating Ourselves: Getting More from International Comparative Studies in Education the United States know little more about education in other countries than that “we are not number one in mathematics and science.” Great obstacles prevent research, both domestic and international, from making an impact on U.S. education policy and practice. International research must also overcome a widely shared assumption that educational policy and practices in other areas of the world are simply not relevant to the United States. When we fail to examine variation across countries, we miss an opportunity to see and understand current educational practices against a richer array of options than those found in the United States. Increasing the degree to which the wealth of education policy and practice experience across nations informs U.S. education policy and practice requires changes in U.S. investment strategies for education research. First, investments in international comparative studies of education need to comprise a larger portion of the overall U.S. education research portfolio. Second, within the international comparative portion of the portfolio, investments in large-scale comparative assessments need to be balanced with more investments in interpretive studies. Top priorities for new U.S. investments, principally in interpretive studies, include regions of the world and topics relatively neglected to date, such as Latin America, school governance, and school outcomes other than achievement. In addition, to complement this expanded investment and increased attention to interpretive studies, the board recommends routine consideration for including international components into major U.S. education research programs; support for studies using a wide range of rigorous and diverse research methodologies appropriate to the research questions under examination, including different combinations of those methodologies within one study; support for simultaneous primary analysis as well as secondary analysis and reanalysis of existing international datasets by individuals who are not involved in the collection of those datasets; and frequent production of syntheses of existing research findings on key policy topics across three or more countries. Developing this more complex research portfolio will require long-term funding commitments as well as infrastructure to support leadership and coordination for a more systematic approach to international comparative studies of education. This leadership and coordination will serve as instruments to achieve the goals described above. More specifically, they will

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Understanding Others, Educating Ourselves: Getting More from International Comparative Studies in Education develop integrated oversight—independent from the conduct of individual studies—for major ongoing and proposed international research to encourage synergies across studies, to identify opportunities among studies for linkage and data analysis, and to bring attention to potential duplication; develop flexible criteria to evaluate and monitor studies that use different methodological approaches; ensure that new studies intended to produce datasets for secondary analysis include planning for that activity from the design stage onward; encourage greater participation by end-user groups in identifying and planning international comparative education studies and disseminating and interpreting research findings; plan better access to international and comparative education datasets and archives of primary source materials by both researchers and practitioners; use international comparative studies of education to stimulate national public dialogue on high-priority issues in education; and build up the international comparative education research community in the United States and other countries. It takes time and effort to understand other country’s education systems well enough to learn what they can tell us about ourselves. These systems are complex and interdependent; they can help us generate a host of new ideas but they are not blueprints for reform. The task remains for U.S. policy makers, practitioners, and the general public to test and adapt these ideas in ways that can improve education in America.