Global Perspectives: An Interview with Ben Jensen, Author of a Recently Released Report on Learning from East Asian Education Systems

Ben Jensen, Program Director of the School Education Program at Australia’s Grattan Institute

This month, Betsy Brown Ruzzi, Director of the Center on International Education Benchmarking, interviewed Ben Jensen of Australia’s Grattan Institute about the Institute’s most recent report, Catching up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia.  Jensen is Director of the School Education Program at the Grattan Institute, an independent public policy think tank that was established by the Australian government, major research organizations and business leaders in 2008.  The Institute focuses on domestic issues including elementary and secondary education, higher education, healthcare, economic wellbeing and productivity growth.  Prior to joining the Grattan Institute, Jensen spent five years at the OECD Education Directorate, where he focused on teacher policy, how schools operate and are organized, and how to accurately measure school performance.

Brown Ruzzi: We know that the Grattan Institute is engaged in research in many areas of Australian public policy, and particularly in education. Can you give us a brief overview of the work you do in primary and secondary education, what your research covers, what methods you use and the projects you have planned in the coming years?

Jensen:  Much of our work is focused on government policy, but we also do work at the school level.  We are particularly interested in how to increase teacher effectiveness. The evidence is quite clear that the greatest impact we can have is increasing teacher effectiveness, which also has the greatest impact on student learning.  As part of that work, we started to look internationally, partly because of my background at the OECD, and partly because Australia, despite its proximity to Asia, has actually been quite slow to learn form the high-performing systems in East Asia. We are doing some work in Shanghai, looking at various programs that deal with inequality, and we are also going to start to look at issues of initial teacher education because I think that is an area that is really crying out for reform. There are an alarming number of teachers in Australia, and in other countries, who say that they come out of their teacher education programs not prepared for the classroom. I think initial teacher education is going to be our next main area of research and again, we would like to do that in the international sphere.

Brown Ruzzi:  Based on your work in East Asia and your experience at OECD, what do you see are the key policy levers that drive high-performing education systems?

Jensen:  There are some very basic drivers.  In terms of education strategy, there are two in particular that I consider to be a difference between Australia and East Asia. The first is an unrelenting focus on student learning.  Student learning is the basis of everything in the East Asian systems, and the systems work to allocate resources to the areas that have the biggest impact on student learning, linking policy to the classroom.  The evidence is very clear that teacher effectiveness has the biggest impact on student learning, and those systems invest in the development of their teachers and in their professional learning in a way that far outstretches other systems.  For example, a few years ago in Singapore, the National Institute of Education (the place where all teachers are trained in Singapore) received feedback from their graduates that not all of their courses prepared them for the classroom, so they reworked their core curriculum to actually remove some subjects such as philosophy of education or history of education in order to put a greater emphasis on classroom practices. They do less of the professional development that a lot of teachers say is not as useful, and they put an emphasis instead on feedback and classroom observation.

The second main driver is connected to the first. The old saying is that successful education strategy is 20 percent design and 80 percent implementation, and I think that is true. In Australia and some other OECD countries, there is a severe disconnect between design and implementation.  However, once you begin to focus on implementation, you get public policy operating in a very different way. If you look at Hong Kong’s education strategy, it largely reads like an implementation framework. If you look at education strategies in some other countries, they are very broad statements of goals. Improving teaching and learning is about behavioral change, and if you focus on the behavioral change you want, you are focusing on implementation – how we can get into schools and help support and develop the behaviors we are looking for. Once you focus on student learning and implementation, you actually get results.

Brown Ruzzi: The Grattan Institute’s most recent report, Catching up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia, discusses those issues in depth, and how, in particular, the four systems you examined (Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and South Korea) have both a strong focus on learning and a strong connection between policy and classroom-level implementation.  Digging a little deeper, what other commonalities did you find in the top-performing East Asian education systems?

Jensen: Well, first of all, there are of course some substantial differences between the systems, which we do outline in the report. So we focused on particular areas of particular systems that we saw as essential to success, such as initial teacher education in Singapore, because they are way ahead of even the other East Asian countries. In Shanghai, they have a very strong system of professional learning, teacher induction and mentoring. They have a huge amount of classroom observation incorporated into their teachers’ professional development, as does Singapore. These practices have a huge impact on student learning and I think a lot of OECD countries are struggling with the question of how to improve learning and professionalizing teaching, and these countries are clearly doing it well.

Brown Ruzzi: Essentially, then, your central point is that two common features of successful education systems, a constant focus on learning and an effective implementation plan, require high quality teacher education, strong induction programs for new teachers, a system of teacher mentoring and a cooperative learning environment for teachers?

Jensen: Yes, though it is important to recognize that it is not just about professional development or professional learning. Having an impact on student learning is our end game. And don’t forget, the high performing systems in East Asia have greater equality in student performance than what you see in other systems, because they often begin system change with equity programs.

The notion of professional cooperation is prevalent across all of the East Asian systems we studied.  While these systems put an emphasis on observing learning in the classroom, the really important difference here is that they are not just observing the teachers, but also observing the students, all the time. I think that is a really powerful mechanism not just to increase the professional learning of teachers, but also in helping students.  You have more than one teacher in the classroom working to identify the students who are falling behind and then helping them catch up. These systems also share the notion of teachers as researchers. This is, in particular, incredibly strong in Shanghai. No other system compares with them in this respect, though I think professional learning communities and teachers as researchers are very effective in Singapore as well, and a little bit less so in Hong Kong and Korea.  I think this is one of those areas where we are going to see quite a bit of change in school education in many countries.

Once there is some movement towards this professionalization, school improvement actually becomes an organic process where the system is improving internally – you have professional learning communities that are trying to find new teaching methods and new curricula, and really examine what is working or not working in their schools.

Brown Ruzzi: So when you speak of teachers as researchers, it’s not only that teachers are publishing in academic journals, but they are collaborating to identify strategies and tools that help improve student performance and this role is built into their career ladder systems?

Jensen: Yes, though I do think there are some academic expectations as well in some of these systems.  But to elaborate, in Shanghai, there are teacher research groups that identify an issue that they are going to study, then they work closely with students and look at practices within the school. The teachers are in each other’s classrooms observing what is working and what is not, and then at the end of the year, you have results. In Shanghai and Singapore this is carried out with a very sophisticated methodology that teachers have learned in the universities and teacher training programs.  And it helps to have the universities and the teacher training institutions closely linked with the schools.  This has a huge impact on both the teachers’ professional careers and on student learning.  Organizing this way leaves fewer students behind because these systems include a lot of observation and feedback of both the teachers and students so that they are able to quickly identify students who are at different levels and address their individual needs in a much more effective manner.

Brown Ruzzi: Are there any other things that these high performing systems have in common that you would like to mention?

Jensen: Yes, it is the quality of the people at all levels of the system from the Ministry through to the schools.  These systems put a heavy emphasis on finding and supporting effective professionals and this support helps increase the status of the profession.

Brown Ruzzi: In reading Catching up, I was surprised that you did not mention high quality, aligned instructional systems (aligned syllabi, curriculum frameworks, assessment and professional development) as one common element found in these top-performing countries.  In our research, we have found that this tends to be a central feature of these systems.

Jensen:  I do believe that is the case in each of these systems, but I see it as a matter of implementation. In Australia, we have just had a national curriculum introduced and I think it is really interesting to compare our curriculum with the curriculum in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, the curriculum is primarily about pedagogy – how to teach the subjects – while in Australia it is more about content or what to teach. When speaking about alignment, you do need links between professional development, assessment, curriculum and pedagogy. Australia is not there yet, but we are headed down that road. Australia is much like the United States in terms of having local jurisdictions responsible for education rather than being able to adopt a common approach, although we are headed in that direction.

Brown Ruzzi: Your report highlighted some of the major differences between East Asian countries and Australia in terms of how the teacher’s job is structured, ranging from the number of students assigned to each teacher to the amount of hours spent in a classroom versus working with other teachers.

Jensen: Yes. In the high performing East Asian countries, there is a clear message that professional learning is not something that you do after hours.  It is built into the system. I think that has a huge impact on student learning and how schools are organized.  Compared to the United States and Australia, the high-performing East Asian countries have larger class sizes and the teachers are spending less time in the classroom during working hours and more time collaborating and planning with their colleagues.

Brown Ruzzi: What has been the response to the report in Australia?

Jensen: I don’t think there has been any education report that has had more media attention than this one. At a policy level, there have been questions about how we take these findings and incrementally employ them in the education system. In Australia, we generally start education reforms with a focus on school funding. But now it is not just about spending more money, we really have to change how we operate our educational system and change our priorities. We don’t have effective teacher preparation, we don’t have professional collaboration, and we don’t have the student results we want. And yet, we are really spending a lot and the costs are only going up. I think our report has been effective in shining a spotlight on what meaningful reform looks like and how we can accomplish it. We have had a number of people tell us that we are changing the education debate in the country, and that is really exciting for us.

Brown Ruzzi: That is exciting. Are policymakers learning what you hoped they would learn from your report on these high performing systems?

Jensen: I think so. They may not be able to go as far as we would like, but we are already seeing policymakers talking along the lines of how to really improve professional learning. I also think there is a realization that we may never get the top performing graduates to enter teaching, so we really need to focus on professional learning in order to develop a strong teaching force.

Brown Ruzzi: Because the Confucian cultures of the countries you studied are different from Australia’s culture, what does Australia have to do differently from the East Asian countries in order to get the same strong results?

Jenson: If you look at the systems highlighted in the report, many of the areas in which they have established reforms are not culture-dependent. They are very practical reforms focused on improvements of professional learning systems and teacher education. If you look back just ten years, Hong Kong and Singapore were ranked, I think, about 14th or 15th [on international assessments] and then made a number of the reforms we have talked about, and now are some of the world’s top-performing systems. That does not require cultural change.

Brown Ruzzi: Do you see a contrast between what you learned from the East Asian systems and what we know about reforms in Finland, and if so, can you describe the central differences?

Jensen:  Finland certainly has the same emphasis on teachers and teaching that you see in the East Asian systems we studied. In Finland, the very top graduates go into teaching and they are then taught to the master’s level in higher education.  That is not true in all of the systems in East Asia.  I think Korea is the most similar in terms of the very highest achieving graduates going into teaching.  I also think there is a difference in pedagogy particularly in primary schools in Finland that use play-based learning more than other systems.  The East Asian systems have had to consciously move away from their historical focus on exams and towards a new focus on 21st – century skills and a constructivist approach to pedagogy. The East Asian systems are in the middle of moving in this direction while the Finns have made much more progress. I also think that in Finland, the connection between policy and the classroom is implemented differently, but that strong link exists, just in a different way. I would also include Ontario in the systems that use policy to create change at the school level.

Brown Ruzzi: Australia has put in place a number of major education reform initiatives in recent years including the National Assessment Programme in 2009, the national curriculum in 2011, initiatives targeting underserved students, the National Partnerships to improve teacher training and retention and the My School effort to report publicly on school performance as part of Australia’s accountability system.  What is the relationship to these reforms and the findings in your report on the East Asian top performers?

Jensen: There are some commonalities between Australia’s reforms and the ones that have taken place in East Asia. I think it is important to have a national curriculum in place. I think at the core, the reforms share a concern about how we improve teaching in the classroom, but the implementation strategy is very different partly because we are coming from a very different starting point. The East Asian systems are trying to move away from an exam-based culture, and we have done just the opposite.

Brown Ruzzi: Do you mean moving from a locally-driven to a centrally-driven accountability system?

Jensen: Exactly. And generally, in Australia, there is not a focus on implementation and how what we do impacts the classroom, except for the national assessments and perhaps eventually the national curriculum. Though again, if you compare our national curriculum to Hong Kong’s, ours is focused on what is taught with very little discussion of how it is taught whereas in Hong Kong, the focus is very much on teaching.

Brown Ruzzi: How does the current reform program fit into the politics of education in Australia today?

Jensen: It is a really interesting time for education in Australia, because we have had a change in government in three eastern states, and they were incredibly convincing wins and we are expecting them to be long-term governments. Having long-term governments opens the door for long-term strategic planning at the state level.

Brown Ruzzi: Given that Australia’s economy is powered by Asia’s need for raw materials, do Australians think they need a highly educated and trained workforce in the years ahead to drive the economy or do they believe that commodities will last forever?

Jensen: I don’t think you see many people at the state level saying that education is the most important priority, possibly because Australia has enjoyed economic growth for well over a decade.  With that said, we are now getting to a stage where unemployment is starting to increase, and that has led to more attention on the issue of training in some areas.  But when a country is doing well, it is often hard to make arguments for change.  You just don’t get that real need for reform or the support for reform that exists in other countries.  At least not yet.

Brown Ruzzi: In light of the change in government in some of your states as well as the overall conversations about reform in Australia, where do you see the recent Review of Funding for Schooling, or the “Gonski Report,” recommendations going? What impact will this report ultimately have on policy?

Jensen: I think our report made it clear that funding is not the main game. But in Australia, a central feature of the debate, as I mentioned earlier, is about funding government and non-government schools. There has been a lot of concern in Australia about inequality between schools and, because of that, Gonski was initially successful in getting support from different stakeholders for his effort to look hard at how schools are funded in Australia.  But with the release of his report and his panel’s recommendations to substantially increase education funding, achieving agreement between the federal and state governments will be difficult, particularly because next year there is a federal election in Australia. I do think there are good things in the report.  In particular, the recommendation for consistent funding for students with disabilities and increased funds for students who require more support.

Brown Ruzzi: Finally, what were your main takeaways from the most recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York City?

Jensen: I think the overarching theme of the summit was the need for strong professional collaboration among teachers and an emphasis on teachers as researchers and how countries can benefit from instilling these qualities in their teaching forces. It was interesting that a number of different countries included these as priorities, and it made me think that these two areas are going to be a focus of change in the future.