Indicators of a World-Class 21st Century Education System

With all the talk about having a “world-class education system” from politicians and policymakers, one would think that our schools would be undergoing major reforms designed to create exactly the kinds of schools that foster 21st century learning and education. Too often though, I suspect this isn't the case, because these individuals define “world-class” as simply “having the best test scores in the world” because in their next breath they lament just how poorly American students compare with other international students on tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). To many of these individuals, this equation seems to apply:


Without a doubt, many of these politicians and policymakers define “world-class” in ways that clearly create “world-class schools” better fitted for the Industrial age where factories and assembly lines were the ultimate destinations of students. These so-called “world class education systems” are, to put it bluntly, schools that churn out “good test scores.”  In a word, a world-class education, in their eyes,  is still about an education done to students rather than something in which they engage in.

Because of this view of “world-class education systems” our politicians and policy-makers, we continue to tweak the edges of our education system instead of really finding substantial ways to reform our education system.
  • We develop new standards and new tests, thinking that if only the hurdles were higher and the measurements tougher, then we would have a “world-class education system.
  • We extend the school day, thinking that only if we subjected our students with more of the same for longer periods of time, we would have a world class education system.
  • We add technology to our schools to help us teach like we have always have done, instead of allowing the technology to help us rethink learning and teaching.
  • We toughen or change graduation standards every four years when new at the whim of the next politician in office, whose thinking is that if we only change the ingredients of our graduation mixture, we would have a world class education system. 
In a word, we continue the same cycles of reform and deform that began with the Sputnik declarations in the 1950s and 1960s, because we can’t let go of a fundamental deeply held belief that education is something done to students rather than something they engage in.

If we were to be honest with ourselves and sincerely asked the question, “What does a truly world class education system for the 21st century look like?” we need to look further than higher test scores.
  • A “world-class” education system is about educating students to tackle 21st century issues, not about achievement test scores.
  • A “world-class” education system engages students in authentic learning experiences, not standardized learning experiences.
  • A “world class” education system actively engages students in their own learning, and does not have them sit passively in classrooms, waiting for the content to be delivered to them.
In his latest book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Yong Zhao provides a thought-provoking list of indicators of a world-class education system. According to him,  we don’t need 21st century schools that churn out “acceptable” test scores like the 20th century schools. We need 21st century schools that foster creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, and innovation. Here are “Eight Indicators of World-Class Schools” adapted and paraphrased from Zhao’s book.

1. A world class education system gives students the “right and opportunity” to participate in school governance, and in constructing the physical, social, and cognitive school environment. Zhao points out the dictatorial nature of our current education system. It seeks to dictate exactly what every student should learn, without regard to her interests or talents.  Students aren't provided opportunities to have any say in their own learning. The whole idea of “educating students” is something done to them, and they are passive participants. In a world-class education system they have a say in their own learning. They participate in the development and construction of their own learning and places of learning. In a word, they are empowered to take ownership of their own learning.

2. A world class education capitalizes on student engagement by giving students a curriculum that is broad and flexible. The curriculum gives students the freedom to pursue their own interests and the development of their own personal talents, rather than creating standardized workers capable of all performing the same tasks. Our current education still seeks to narrow the curriculum and make it rigid. The belief that there are a list of skills and talents every student should have drives a curriculum narrowly focused on skills and talents subject to standardized testing. A world-class education system has a broad, flexible curriculum that can be individually tailored to the interests, talents, and abilities of each student.

3. A world class education system provides personal support for each of its students. Our traditional schools were and still are still set up to deliver an assembly-line education in a standardized manner. A true world-class education system provides what Zhao calls sufficient and accessible “emotional, social, and cognitive support for students so they can personalize their own learning.” All students are connected to at least one significant adult in the building. A world-class education system personalizes each student’s education through a solid system of support.

4. A world class education system engages students in authentic learning experiences that ask them to create authentic products of learning. In our current traditional system of education, students still spend a great deal of their learning time engaged in inauthentic activities involving worksheets, textbooks, and standardized tests. Instead, students in a world-class education system are engaged in learning where student work is defined as authentic and real-world. A world-class education system engages students in 21st century learning tasks that are authentic and personally meaningful.

5. A world class education system engages students in a sustained and disciplined process of learning. In the old traditional education system, students basically complete their work. The teacher grades it and gives it back. In a world-class education system, students are engaged in a learning process that asks them to develop, review, evaluate and revise. In this kind of learning, students are clearly engaged in more that finding right answers and giving them to the teacher. They are engaged in a world-class education that asks them develop, evaluate, revise, and promote products of their learning.

6. A world class education system capitalizes on the local strengths of its students, teachers. A world class education system takes advantage of the locale of its schools, and it effectively taps into community resources. The schools' teaching reflects the strengths of its teaching staff. The system provides ways for both teachers and students to exploit their own talents and interests.  A world class education system seeks not to standardize, but to make the most of both its students and teachers in all learning.

7. A world class education system has a world orientation. This means simply, that the school operates from a global perspective, not the narrow perspective of local community or even country. World-class schools seek international partnerships, and students are engaged in learning involving global issues. In addition, students are engaged in frequent interactions with students from other countries. In other words, a world-class education system moves students and their learning beyond the walls of their classrooms and even the borders of their country.

8. A world class education system develops the global competence in its students. Global competence refers to the ability of students to interact with others from different cultures. This means in world-class schools, foreign languages and cultural learning are important. It means students have opportunities to interact with these foreign cultures either through the use of technology or through field trips. In other words, a world-class education system provides opportunities for students to experience other countries and cultures in engaging and relevant ways.

Having a world-class education system is more than having one where decision makers can have bragging rights to the highest scores in the world. Ultimately, a world-class education system focuses on student engagement, student choice, personalization, authentic learning, global perspective, and global competence. Unfortunately, these are things that often make education messy.
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