A tech industry vet and edtech exec provides a tour and shares a path forward.
GUEST COLUMN | by Cheryl Miller
A Turning Point for U.S. Education
COVID-19 has catalyzed a level of change not seen in education in recent history; the U.S. K-12 education system is at an inflection point. The pandemic has highlighted some of the greatest challenges our schools face. Student inequities, the teacher shortage, inadequate teacher training and resources, and a lack of access to technology have all been brought to the fore.
It’s a crisis for education, but it’s also a chance to address these longstanding challenges head on and reevaluate our methods of solving them. Could this be our country’s opportunity to make meaningful changes in our approach to education?
‘Certain commonalities in approaches to education among countries with high performing students may serve as inspiration as we chart a path forward…’
The answer requires serious introspection, but we may also benefit from looking beyond borders to countries leading in education around the globe. There are, of course, a complex multitude of factors that determine a country’s education success and there is no perfect comparison to our education system here in the U.S. However, we would be remiss not to take this critical opportunity to learn what we can from some of the world’s education leaders.
Finland’s education system is considered to be among the best in the world—a fact that is largely attributed to the country’s investment in its teachers.
In Finland, the teaching profession is highly respected and sought after. Teachers are required to have a masters degree in education and are granted a high level of autonomy and trust; individual teachers decide how the curriculum is taught and are responsible for defining technology’s role in the classroom, allowing them to apply their expertise to tailor learning experiences to individual students. 
Educators are also represented at every level of Finnish government. Educators hold government positions across local and national authorities and the teacher’s perspective informs education governance and policy. 
While Canada has much in common with the U.S., the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing reveals that Canadian students have outranked ours in reading, math, and science. Ontario’s Ministry of Education, which educates 40% of Canadian students, developed qualifications for both teachers and school leaders and invests heavily in teacher training. In British Columbia, rather than issuing top-down directives, British Columbia’s Ministry of Education supported the development of teacher networks focused on student success. 
The U.S education system may benefit from collectively refocusing on empowering teachers, investing in teacher training, and welcoming more teacher input at every level of schools and government.
Helping Every Student Succeed
In the U.S., a student’s economic status often dictates the quality of their education experience. However, in Japan, all students are granted equal education opportunities regardless of socioeconomic status. Economic disadvantages are considered a shared responsibility.
Japanese students are not put on different tracks according to their academic abilities; all students share the same classroom and students who are excelling at subject material are expected to help students who are struggling. In Japan, it is taken for granted that all students will receive the same level of education.
Unlike the U.S., Japan has a highly homogeneous population. Racial segregation in schools is nonexistent and weighing education inequities in Japan against those in the U.S. is far from an apples to apples comparison. However, there may be something to be learned from Japan’s collective, community driven approach to student success.
Japan’s education system also benefits from the way that it assigns teachers. Teachers are hired by prefectures rather than individual schools, and are reassigned throughout the course of their careers allowing Japan to better distribute teaching talent and bring the right educators to schools in need. By continually evaluating student performance and equitably distributing teachers, Japan ensures that all schools are adequately resourced.
Estonia has made remarkable strides in education since gaining independence in 1992. Estonia’s international test results speak for themselves: Even the lowest ranking Estonian students performed higher than the average student in the industrialized world. 
Estonia prioritizes delivering a consistent, uniform educational experience for all students. Estonia’s school assignment system places students from different neighborhoods and economic background in the same classroom. Remarkably, 48% of low-income students performed at the highest levels on PISA.
Is there an opportunity for the U.S. to better frame education as a collective responsibility and explore new systems of ensuring equity?
Learning Powered by Technology
The world’s largest education system is leading the way in edtech. In 2019, there were more edtech companies registered and more invested capital in China than anywhere in the world. As we work to address the digital divide in the U.S., there may be opportunities to learn from the way China is leveraging edtech to address urban-rural education disparities. Some Chinese Edtech companies are partnering with established philanthropic organizations to bring technology to rural areas. Edtech presents new ways to address some of America’s greatest inequity challenges. By bringing edtech companies and our strongest non-profits together, we may be better equipped in our efforts to expand student access to technology.
Experts forecast a surge in education technology adoption in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic fueled explosive growth, exceeding expectations. By November of last year, the UK edtech sector had grown by 72%, compared to 18% global growth, further solidifying the UK’s role as an edtech leader.
But as the edtech industry was booming, Britain was also issuing sweeping online protections for children. The Age-Appropriate Design Code is intended to safeguard children’s privacy. Among the new rules are age-based content restrictions and limitations that prohibit companies from requiring children to share unnecessary personal data.
While the protections were met with criticism from some tech industry leaders who expressed concerns over the level of restrictions, Britain remained steadfast in its commitment to the new rules. As technology continues to have an increasingly important role in classrooms across the U.S., we’re reminded that true edtech leadership means putting the best interests of our students first.
A Path Forward
How can the U.S. education system rise to meet the challenges of our time? Certain commonalities in approaches to education among countries with high performing students may serve as inspiration as we chart a path forward for U.S. education in 2021:
- Investment in teachers and educator empowerment and representation across all levels of government
- Consistency of the quality of education experiences country-wide, regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds, and intelligent, creative distribution of resources for improved education equity
- Broad access to technology supported by collaborative initiatives
- Data privacy and protections for students
At this crucial moment in the history of our education system, we have the opportunity to explore alternative approaches from educators around the world and consider new possibilities for a better future. Equipped with insights from education systems abroad, we can address our country’s greatest education challenges through a new lens and take meaningful steps towards education advancement.
2. Hancock, LynNell (September, 2011) “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” Smithsonian Magazine
3. PISA 2018 Results (2019) Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
4. “Canada Overview” Center on International Education Benchmarking
5. “Japan Overview” Center on International Education Benchmarking
6. Semuels, Alana (August 2, 2017) “Japan Might Be What Equality in Education Looks Like”
7. “Estonia: Supporting Equity” Center on International Education Benchmarking
8. Zhang, Victor (January 24, 2019) “China EdTech Series (Part 1): Why China is the Global EdTech Leader” Navitas Ventures
9. Geromel, Ricardo (April 5, 2019) “Why Is China The World’s Leader In Edtech?” Forbes
10. Vandenberg, Layne (December 1, 2020) “EdTech in Rural China” The Diplomat
11. Walters, Robert (January 14, 2021) “UK EdTech sector grows to £3.5bn as demand surges for digital classrooms and AR” fenews.co.uk
12. Singer, Natasha (January 21, 2020) “Britain Plans Vast Privacy Protections for Children” The New York Times
Cheryl Miller has over 20 years in the tech industry and joins Promethean from Microsoft where she was the GM of the One Commercial Partner Team, leading the worldwide go-to-market efforts. Prior to Microsoft, Cheryl was VP of Marketing at F5 Networks. She also spent 11 years at Symantec in various product teams. Early in her career she worked on open source software at VA Linux in product marketing and started her tech career in distribution selling semiconductors at Arrow Electronics. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Business Administration. Write to: [email protected]