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11 Foreign Education Policies That Could Transform American Schools

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We learned the results of the latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) last week, and American students performed the same on the well-regarded international exam as they have for the past ten years -- completely stagnant, smack dab in the middle of the spectrum. They scored slightly above average in reading, average in science and below average in math. Meanwhile, students in the Chinese province, Shanghai, dominated the exam, earning the top spot in all three categories.

It could be time for our country to look at some of the specific protocols and methods that top-performing countries are using to educate their children. Here, we have highlighted 11 education policies from highly-ranked countries that seem to be working for them. Read up America, it's time to take some notes.

1. Effectively teaching students how to conceptualize

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According to CNN's OECD special advisor on education policy, Andreas Schleicher, only two percent of American students can generalize and use advanced math in creative ways. The highest math performance on the PISA requires not only that students know how to do math, but also that they know when to apply certain mathematical principles. In Shanghai the percentage of students who can conceptualize math skills is over 30 percent. Educators in the Chinese province of Shanghai seem to understand that it's not exactly about what a person knows, but what that person can do with their knowledge.

2. Making schooldays shorter

Students in Finland, which tops the Pearson assessment of education quality, are only taught for 600 hours a year. Compared to the usual 1,080 hours of teaching in other countries, Finland uses the extra hours to give teachers enough time to carefully prepare their lesson plans.

3. Diverting more government spending toward education

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Singapore, which scored second highest in math on the international exam, makes sure that 20 percent of its national budget is spent on education. That's compared to the two percent that the United States devotes from its national budget to schooling, which is dwarfed by defense spending. The higher amount of money that Singapore devotes allows teachers to be paid better salaries than lawyers and even engineers. Talk about placing extreme value on education.

4. Keeping students with one teacher and class every year

In Finland, a consistent top-performing country on the PISA, students often stay together in one class for several years with the same teacher, unlike how most U.S. elementary schools are run. They believe this allows the teacher to follow development over several grade levels, and it provides a "family-like environment" for the students to learn in. The U.S. implements a different education philosophy and decides to train teachers to instruct specific grade levels under the belief that instructors in separate grade levels require different skill sets and training.

5. Paying teachers more

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Singapore, Finland and South Korea all pay teachers much more than the general average American starting salary of $39,000. This allows for more rigorous training and requirements in order to become a successful teacher. Higher pay allows for more selectivity, ensuring that teachers are serious about the profession. These countries also offer competitive compensation in order to keep and attract people who are highly skilled and passionate about teaching the country's youth.

6. Directing better schools to help out failing schools

The educators in Shanghai know the value of teamwork: One of their educational initiatives asks better-performing schools to pair up with lower-performing schools to help improve quality. It's called "empowered administration," in which a stronger school takes over a weaker one and sends a team of experienced administrators to create better management.

7. Instilling a strong sense of belief and determination in students

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In a survey, 84 percent of Japanese students said they not only believe they have the ability to succeed, but that they are willing and able to do whatever it takes to achieve success. Only half of American students said they feel that way. The reason for Japan's different mentality could be due to the fact that students in Asian countries tend to believe achievement is a product of hard work, whereas Americans are taught to believe that intelligence is inherited.

8. Capping class sizes

The fewer students in a classroom, the more individual and specialized attention they receive. That's why the government of Nova Scotia in Canada made the decision that, starting in September 2014, most elementary school class sizes will be capped at 25 students. This is a stark comparison to many American public elementary schools that do not have class size limits. In 2010, budget cuts forced the school board in Georgia to expand class sizes to 40 kids in a classroom.

9. Making sure parents take a more constructive role in children's education

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Studies have found that parents in China care more about their children's education than American parents. More importantly, Chinese parents place more emphasis on their child's effort, whereas American parents focus more of their child's ability. When their child fails, Chinese parents focus on improving their effort, while American parents are quick to blame the child's intelligence, or the teacher or school.

10. Giving the kids a break

With only two major breaks each year (winter and summer), American students are bound to get worn out. School years in New Zealand are divided into four terms that have two-week breaks in between. They also have a six-week summer break. By divvying up the breaks instead of having two large ones, New Zealand allows students to retain more information, because they have balanced opportunities to relax and regroup their thoughts.

11. Stressing engagement and positive relationships between students and staff

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According to a study by Northwest Regional Educational Library, students will attend school more if they feel that they are fully engaged and have positive relationships with teachers and fellow classmates. Perhaps Americans should study Japan's educational model, which calls for educational institutions to take a more active role in their students' lives: Their attendance rate is extremely high, at 99.98 percent. The average attendance rate in the U.S. is at 92 percent.

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