Every three years, a half-million fifteen-year old students from around the world (72 countries) represent their fellow 29 million teenagers in taking a test known as the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).
No, the test doesn't measure levels of sarcasm or projected need for instant gratification among teens. We don't need a test for that.
The test measures how well the students are able to think. They do problems they haven't seen before, make inferences and identify patterns, and write compelling arguments. In other words, it's not the stuff of rote memorization (which is how I got through school). It's real cognitive jockeying.
More importantly, the test measures the strength of each countries underlying education system.
So, let's get this over with: The results of the latest PISA are in and the United States scored right smack in the middle of average (and below average in math, actually).
Singapore crushed every other country (again) for the best test scores, with Japan and Estonia taking the number two and three spots, respectively.
What's fascinating about the test are the clear themes it reveals about why some education systems so dramatically outperform others.
It's not how much money a country throws at education. Countries like the United States, Luxemburg, and Norway top the list among big spenders per student, but none of them are considered education superpowers.
Here are five driving factors behind what makes one education system outshine others, according to the data. Within lies insight for leaders looking to build the "smartest," best-thinking organization they can.
Schools in the smartest countries have or do the following:
1. Establish cultures of continual improvement
The educational powerhouse that is Singapore sets the bar for the rest of the world largely because it's constantly challenging the status quo approach to education and has developed a robust culture among educators of getting better each year.
In the workplace, this oft-overlooked philosophy of continual improvement goes by the wayside in the face of pressure to deliver short term goals.
As a leader, you must balance short-term requirements with developing a longer-term sustainable competitive advantage through championing a culture of constant reflection and improvement. That means prioritizing and holding sacred time to do just that, no matter what meeting is coming up.
2. Apply rigorous, consistent standards across classrooms
As a leader never forget the importance of setting a high bar, and holding that bar at the same level for everyone on your team. Nothing makes an organization "dumber" and more disengaged than when its members observe inconsistency in standards or inaction in enforcement.
3. Frequently demonstrate and explain ideas
It's so easy as a leader to give directives and walk away, leaving the troops to figure out the rest on their own. This is a call to take the time to invest in smart information sharing.
Explain what is needed with examples and take time to answer questions. Author George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place".
4. Invest the time to provide individual coaching and help
This one should hit you right between the eyes.
The smartest, most skilled organizations are often the ones that reflect the knowledge that the leader has skillfully and earnestly disseminated. This includes taking the time to invest in the development of those that are not necessarily your stars.
The highest scoring countries in education do a great job of providing for disadvantaged students to create equity in opportunity.
6. Embrace change*
The study cites that one of the biggest impediments to a powerful education system is the trickle-down effect of teachers not embracing change (which prevents students from accessing the most advanced environment and methodologies available and sends mixed signals about the learning process).
As a leader, you must know that change is inevitable and that it's up to you to mold change versus letting it mold you in negative ways.
Know that embracing change is one of the greatest personal development tools you have at your disposal and that showing the ability to learn and adapt is one of the core identifiers of high-potential leaders.
So learn from those who learn the best and then launch your own organization 2.0.
*Note: Author is aware that he has misnumbered here--he's trying to reinforce that we still have a way to go in math edukation in this country.