Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform

Though American education has
taken few actual steps to pattern itself on other countries, in recent years
we’ve displayed a near-obsessive interest in how we’re doing in relation to
them (e.g. on TIMSS and PISA results), and in what they’re doing and how they
do it. We at Fordham have worked
our way into this mix a couple of times
and we’ve periodically
reviewed
major
analyses
of “education success stories around the world” by the likes of
McKinsey
. We’ve also read our share—OK, more than our share—of paeans to
Finland, Singapore, you name it. (At the U.S. Education Department, I helped
lead a study of Japanese education as far back as 1988.) I’ve also long
admired Marc Tucker’s tireless efforts to get American educators and reformers
to understand and appreciate how other nations address challenges that often
resemble our own.

Which isn’t to say I always agree
with him. And that’s true of his latest paper, too—drawn from a book coming out in September. He
seeks to determine “what education policy might look like in the United States
if it was [sic] based on the experiences of our most successful competitors.”
In that role, he casts Canada (Ontario), Finland, and three East Asian lands
(Japan, Singapore, and the Shanghai region of China.) And in fifty pages he
offers a wealth of insights that, while perceptive, are not fully applicable on
these shores—much as Marc would have us think otherwise.

Some are both familiar and broad
enough to be apply just about everywhere, such as “set clear goals,” have
checkpoints along the way to gauge (and control) student progress, worry a lot
about teacher quality (principals, too), finance schools equitably, strike the
right balance between autonomy and accountability, and strive for a coherent “system.”
Such observations are not new to readers of McKinsey’s work and that of others
who have gone down this path.

Where Marc gets into trouble (with
me, anyway) is when he tries to convert some of these lessons for American domestic
use—especially the part about “consider[ing] the education system as one
coherent whole.” Four of his overseas “benchmark” examples have
national education systems, run by the central government; and he seems at
ease with America moving in that direction, not just via voluntary
comings-together of states (e.g. the Common Core) but also through forceful
actions by Uncle Sam.

The more useful example for us
among those he has examined is Ontario, for Canada has no federal education
department nor (to my knowledge) any involvement by the national government in
the delivery, financing, or even policy-setting for primary-secondary
education. Marc never quite resolves the extent to which Ontario sticks out from
his other exemplars like a structural sore thumb, nor does he quite get to the
lesson that might be most applicable here: American education surely needs a
major overhaul of its education governance before it can successfully put into
place the other changes in policy and practice that Marc urges (and that
these other countries have and do). And yes, that will lead us away from “local
control” as traditionally defined and operationalized in U.S. education. (They
don’t have that kind of local control in Ontario, either.) But it will and
should lead us not to Washington but to a proper redefinition of the role of
states (akin to Canadian provinces) and to the roles of individual schools,
parents, and choice. Marc’s biggest blind spot, at least within the
context of U.S. education reform today, is his “system knows best, just get the
system right” mindset and his dismissal of the potential of competition and
choice, properly structured and appropriately accountable, for accelerating the
change we need in American education.

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to
Flypaper, click here.

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Click to listen to commentary on Tucker's report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

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