International Benchmarking: A Critical Tool for Learning and Improving

Posted by on July 23, 2015 in Commentary, Featured | 0 comments

When I was a teacher, my students would sometimes say things like “I’m not good at math” or “I can’t read,” and I used to wonder how they came to these conclusions that seemed so final. Yet the impression was there, and the statements outweighed any efforts to have them go back and look at what they could learn and where progress had been made. Along these same lines, the results from international benchmarking are often characterized in much the same way. We are so focused on what we are not and where we are lacking that we don’t see our strengths, and we discount the exciting lessons that we could learn. We need to stop thinking of the data and outcomes as places for punishment or embarrassment and instead try to discover what we can learn from other countries’ experiences.

Recently, I was fortunate to be part of two international benchmarking experiences, and I was reminded of why understanding the educational systems in other countries is so important. First, NCTAF and OECD co-hosted a forum on professional learning focused on the findings from the 2013 Teaching & Learning International Survey (TALIS). The survey found that, across countries, collaboration and teaming increase teachers’ confidence and self-efficacy and improve job satisfaction. The study also found that very little of American teachers’ time – less than 5% – is actually spent doing collaborative work. This is a disconnect we need to address by delving more deeply into the collaborative activities of countries where students are doing well across the board. How do teachers in those countries have the time and resources to support collaboration? How did collaboration become part of the norm, and what was the trade-off? What impact does collaboration have on student learning? All of these questions and more are important for us to understand, so that relevant findings can be applied to support U.S. teachers.

I also was part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Summit for Schools, where I was asked the question “Is international benchmarking important?” The answer is a resounding yes! International benchmarking gives us the chance to look at our policies – at the federal, state, and local levels – and to ask the question: “What changes could we make that would yield better results for our students and our teachers?” A great example is around the implementation of standards. The PISA results in the U.S. show that, in general, students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as translating real-world situations into mathematical terms and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems. An alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and PISA suggests that a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains in PISA. This is evidence that supports the reason we embarked on this effort to strengthen our standards in the first place, and it makes the case that this will, in turn, improve student performance.

The solution is with our teachers. Teachers get it. They understand that these international lessons learned and examples are additional data sources that they can point to as they work to improve their teaching and learning environments. For example, teachers can use TALIS data to advocate for more collaborative planning time because TALIS makes it clear that collaborative time improves teachers’ efficacy and confidence. As a community, we need to empower our teachers to use this data by helping to raise awareness about the data sources, helping teachers to apply the data to improve their own practice, helping to make the data useful for their advocacy efforts, and then making sure that they have a place at the table – at every level – to influence the policy and actions that affect their schools, classrooms, and students.

International benchmarking is a critical tool for the education community as we work to understand and improve American education. Let’s use these valuable data not for punitive or shaming purposes but rather as an opportunity to support teaching and improve learning outcomes for all students.


Melinda George, President, oversees NCTAF’s research, policy, and implementation projects, develops and maintains strategic partnerships, and provides thought leadership about teaching for the 21st century. Melinda served as NCTAF’s Vice President and Chief Operating Officer since 2011.

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