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World educators compare notes

Seeing education as key to economic gain, businesses push policymakers to study other nations' learning

IN today's increasingly global economy, world leaders are placing a new emphasis on international benchmarking in education. Successful education-reform ideas are being shared across national boundaries. And traditionally insular approaches to educating students are gaining a more international perspective.

``Schooling is now being treated in strategic terms by governments that seek to restructure or steer their economies,'' states a recent report on ``International Education Comparisons'' from the United States Department of Education.

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Throughout the world, countries are realizing that education is key to economic competitiveness. In turn, national policymakers are working to reform their education systems and better prepare students for a more competitive world.

Some model programs include:

* Germany, for its vocational-education and apprenticeship programs.

* Japan, for its general emphasis on math and science.

``A lot of the education reform in the future will be driven by economic pressures and the ability of corporate leaders to employ a work force that is diligent, productive, and inventive,'' says Robert Albright, chairman of the Council for International Activities at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

More than ever, education officials are looking to emulate successful ideas from around the world. ``Much of the demand to study other systems is based on the concern of business leaders,'' Mr. Albright says. ``I'm not so sure that educational leaders on their own would have come up with the notion of studying other educational systems.''

At a July meeting of nine Asian-Pacific countries in Honolulu, education officials credited a long-term emphasis on education for helping fuel the booming economy in Southeast Asia. This focus has helped drive the region's 6 to 8 percent a year economic growth, says Karen Oppenheim Mason, of the East-West Center in Hawaii.

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Education is credited with contributing nearly a quarter of the increase in Korea's gross national product, says Wang Bok Kim, a South Korean Education Ministry official.

An increasing number of countries are participating in international achievement tests, such as the International Assessment of Education Progress, which places their students' performance within an international context.

``American educators are always looking over our shoulders so we can know where we are [in relation to other countries] and then can benchmark ourselves,'' says Philip Altbach, a professor of education at Boston College. ``The same is true of many other countries,'' he adds. ``The European Union countries now do a lot more comparison between their nations.''

Even countries with successful education systems are looking for lessons from other national education programs. In Japan, for example, there is a great deal of concern that Japanese students lack creativity when compared with Americans.

``There's a lot of wondering about why the Japanese never win the Nobel Prize,'' Professor Altbach says. ``The Japanese realize that their system is too rigid and requires too much rote learning.''

As a result, Japanese officials are now working to make the national education system more flexible and to promote creativity in students. ``It's the opposite of what we're doing'' in the US, says Harold Stevenson, author of ``The Learning Gap,'' a book comparing US, Japanese, and Chinese education. ``We want more homework and more intensive study, and the Japanese are saying, `We've overdone it.'''

FOR example, Japanese schools are no longer holding classes every Saturday while Americans are pushing for longer school days and academic years.

``Perhaps desirable education may be found in the middle course,'' somewhere between Japan's rote learning and the US's flexibility, says Yukihiko Hishimura, director-general of Japan's National Institute for Educational Research in Tokyo.

Sharing education ideas is difficult, of course, since national education systems often have fundamental differences.

In several developed nations, for example, 90 percent or more of the student population is from a single ethnic and linguistic group. Such is the case in Japan, France, Korea, Ireland, and Scotland. Countries such as the US, Australia, Spain, Canada, and Switzerland, on the other hand, have more diverse populations.

Educators warn that cookie-cutter education reform is not practical. ``You can get insights from other countries, but direct applications of educational innovations are not generally very successful,'' Altbach says. ``It's difficult to incorporate what we learn [from other nations] because of drastic differences'' in systems, Albright agrees. ``But some ideas can be shared and borrowed.''

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