There's an unmistakable link, Tucker believes, between the poor performance of American students and the lack of national standards. "It's not surprising that we get poor performance when we've given most of our kids no reason to take tough courses or to study hard,'' he says. Many employers and most colleges require nothing more than a high school diploma, and it takes little effort to earn one. "The record shows pretty clearly that if one shows up at school with some reasonable regularity and doesn't cause trouble, one can get a high school diploma,'' Tucker says. "A diploma has next to nothing to do with what one knows or is able to do.''
His solution: The United States should establish a national examination system, one that builds on the best aspects of foreign schools but addresses the great diversity and large numbers of disadvantaged students in this country. "An examination system,'' Tucker maintains, "properly designed and embedded in the right policy system, can be an extremely powerful motivator to kids. It can elicit effort in school in a way that almost nothing else can match.'' Politicians and education reform leaders around the country have only recently begun to talk seriously about a national examination. A number of powerful groups, such as the National Governors' Association, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the National Alliance of Business, have been debating national test proposals in recent months. In January, President Bush's Education Policy Advisory Committee recommended a set of national examinations, and, a month later, another organization--Educate America-- was formed by several prominent education policymakers with the sole mission of developing a series of national achievement tests.
But Tucker is talking about something different, something much more ambitious. He isn't proposing a mandatory high-stakes examination; rather, he envisions a broad national examination system that would assess students' skills through a wide range of activities. The first step, as Tucker sees it, is to define national education goals: what students should know and be able to do when they graduate from high school. These goals would be outlined in national syllabuses-- not specific texts or curricula but broad performance standards in each of the core subjects. Once the goals are set, new ways of measuring students' mastery of the knowledge and skills would have to be developed. Teachers, Tucker notes, will be "absolutely central'' at every stage of development.
The proposal goes far beyond one man's efforts. Tucker's organization, the Rochester, N.Y.-based National Center on Education and the Economy, is working with the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh and a group of 10 to 20 states and cities to develop the examination system. The program brings together some of the nation's most innovative education leaders, including teachers and administrators from Rochester, Dade County (Fla.), San Diego, Washington state, and Vermont.
The 18-month pilot project has received $2.45 million from the MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. "The alliance of educators--state and local--is an important part of this,'' says Peter Gerber, director of MacArthur's education programs. "Tucker has assembled a bunch of first-rate people.''
Although poll after poll show widespread public support for national standards and exams, the concept is not without its critics. Some say it would erode the hallowed American tradition of state and local control of education. Others focus on equity: What guarantees that a new system will better serve poor and minority students who now drop out of school in large numbers? Still others argue that a national exam would merely waste time and money; the resources, they say, would be better invested in programs to improve early childhood education or increase parental involvement. And these concerns don't even address the substantial technical challenges of developing a national examination system.
Many critics of a single national test, however, don't object to the exam system Tucker and his colleagues at NCEE and the University of Pittsburgh are trying to create. Take Gregory Anrig, president of the massive Educational Testing Service. Anrig is a formidable and vocal critic of many national exam proposals, especially the White House committee's plan. He believes that too much testing interferes with teaching; it's like "pulling up a carrot to see if it's growing,'' he says. But Anrig considers Tucker's idea "a very positive contribution'' to education reform. "People in educational testing need to be continually rethinking and developing new approaches to assessment,'' Anrig adds. "The more places that are doing that, the better.''
Tucker himself marvels at the lack of opposition the concept has encountered. "That's not to say that people don't differ on the particulars,'' he says, "and it's not to say that it's going to be easy. But the generally positive reception the basic idea has received augurs very well.'' It's a bright, crystal-clear winter afternoon in Rochester; the previous day's snowfall has softened the city's rough edges. Tucker is sitting in his spacious, sunny office on a plush red leather couch, which gives the space the feel of a living room. His long legs stretch out in front of him, his feet stacked one on top of the other. For a man who spends much of his time speaking to politicians, teachers, school administrators, businesspeople, and union leaders, Tucker is surprisingly soft-spoken. His quiet manner comes as a greater surprise considering he once studied drama at Yale University.
Although he never pursued a career on stage, Tucker has emerged as one of the major players in the national cast of school reformers. He began his career in television production, eventually working in the education division of a Boston public television station. After several years, he took a job with an education center, focusing his efforts on research. But studying the progress of a failing educational system wasn't rewarding enough for a man who wanted to help build a whole new one.
Today, Tucker is known as a master strategist of education reform. He's been associated with some of the broader reform projects in recent years: the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the effort to ease the school-to-work transition, and, now, a national exam system. "The reports that I've been involved with are terribly important because they are a vehicle for building and developing consensus among key leaders of our society on what needs to be done,'' says Tucker, fingering the pipe that never leaves his hands.
Tucker chooses his words carefully as he discusses the reform projects he has directed. He believes his work has attracted widespread attention in part because his reports have launched formidable reform projects. Most education reports generate a flurry of attention after their release, only to find their way quickly to the back of a filing cabinet. But Tucker makes his reports relevant--and more than theoretical-- by designing projects to demonstrate and test the ideas. As executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, for example, Tucker was the principal author of A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. That 1986 report outlined a comprehensive plan for restructuring the nation's schools and led to the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is currently trying to forge a national certification system for teachers.
Tucker moved to Rochester in 1988 to form the National Center on Education and the Economy--and to help the city's public schools undertake a major restructuring effort. Last summer, the center released the highly publicized report America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!, produced by the NCEE-sponsored Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The commission's first recommendation essentially called for a national examination system like the one Tucker and his colleagues now propose. Washington Gov. Booth Gardner liked the idea so much that he recently proposed a system of school performance standards for his state closely modeled on the report's recommendations. Before any national examination system stands a chance of success, educators will have to eliminate what Tucker calls the "hypocrisy'' of the American education system. Tucker points out that American educators often criticize the way European and Asian school systems sort students early in life, irrevocably deciding their futures. But, he argues, the American system is far more restrictive and inflexible than other countries' systems. "We have different standards for different kids because we have different expectations,'' he says. "We decide on those expectations very early and close off options with a finality that the European system cannot approach.''
In fact, Tucker contends, the European systems are less rigid than Americans commonly believe. In Germany, for example, about a third of the currently practicing engineers completed a technical program rather than the academic curriculum before going to college. These engineers are among the most sought-after in Germany because they have acquired a combination of practical and theoretical skills. In the United States, it's almost unimaginable that such a large number of vocational students would advance to careers in engineering.
Tucker sees the national exam as a way to give every American student more opportunities. "We do not propose to use this system as a sorting exam,'' he says. "We propose a standard which is very high, benchmarked to world-class standards for kids of 16.'' If the standards are met, the exam "opens all the doors'' to college-prep programs, entry-level jobs, or professional and technical apprenticeships.
"It is very important to break the back of our system, which is founded so heavily on the idea that academic achievement is a function of native ability,'' Tucker adds. "The way to do that is to establish a standard at a high level for everyone. But this makes sense only if we also create a system in which most kids can actually meet that standard.''
Here, Tucker draws on his travels in Japan and Singapore. "One of the things I find really attractive about the Japanese system of education,'' he explains, "is that they not only say that all kids can learn, but they actually mean it. You can see that in the basic design of their system. They really believe that if you're falling behind it's because you're not working hard enough, not because you're stupid.'' And if you're not working hard enough, what's the solution? Work harder. Students who fall behind in Japan get more homework and spend more time in school--they do "whatever it takes'' to succeed, Tucker says.
Singapore has formalized this idea. Students are sorted into "streams,'' based on the results of tests taken at the end of 3rd grade. Every student is expected to meet the same standard, but some are given more time to do so. Parents can override the school's placement decision and have their child moved to a faster stream, but if the child starts to lag, he or she is returned to a slower track. Remarkably, Tucker points out, the highest score last year on Singapore's primary school leaving exams came from a student in the slowest stream.
The United States, Tucker argues, should learn from--but not emulate--these foreign systems. One factor he believes should be incorporated into the American system is teacher accountability for student performance. "The burden cannot fall exclusively on the kids; it has to fall on the system,'' he says. "I think it's very important that we set up a system in which there are real rewards for school professionals who help these kids meet the standard, and consequences for those who don't.''
That could mean a system in which teachers' pay is linked directly to student performance, a highly controversial notion among teachers but one Tucker thinks is crucial. "I don't think teachers will be able to get or sustain high pay and professional autonomy unless they become truly accountable for student performance,'' he notes. First, however, teachers must believe in the goals that are set for students and in the methods used to assess students' progress in meeting those goals.
Tucker also believes a revised American system will have to incorporate aspects of the system in Singapore, where students who need more help to reach the standard receive more resources. "And one of those resources is time,'' he says. The idea of giving some students more time and resources than others to complete the same material is an attempt to address concerns about equity; it aims to prevent the cycle in which slower students fall behind permanently.
Shirley Malcom, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's directorate for education and human resources and a member of NCEE's board of trustees, says questions of equity "affect everything else; other concerns pale in comparison. Equity has to be considered in the beginning, before we get into the [examination] process.'' If equity isn't built into the system, she warns, then those who slip behind now will continue to stay behind.
In our current system, Tucker says, many poor and minority parents hear that their children are earning good grades in subjects such as math and science. But the courses they are taking bear little resemblance to those taken by privileged, white students. This disparity, Tucker says, highlights the importance of creating a single standard that gives all parents a means of gauging how their children measure up. "They can ask, 'Is my son or daughter getting a curriculum that will prepare them to meet the standard?' and 'How is my son or daughter progressing toward that standard?' with better confidence that it is the same standard against which white kids from the suburbs are working,'' he says. "There is not a double standard; there is one standard.'' The system Tucker and his cohorts are developing aims to change the nature of test taking in the United States. Today, secrecy surrounds most standardized testing; no one is to know the questions beforehand. Because the tests aren't directly connected to the curriculum, students aren't supposed to be able to study for them--and teachers aren't supposed to be able to prepare their classes to take them. Students would be able to study for the exams that Tucker has outlined. Indeed, he says, that's the point: The exam reflects what students are expected to know, so studying for the exam means mastering the curriculum. What's more, Tucker wants to see a system in which the questions and answers are released right after the exam, so the public can think about them, debate them, and actually see what a first-rate answer looks like.
Lauren Resnick, who directs the LRDC at the University of Pittsburgh, says assessments that don't further this explicit link between test preparation and learning should be rejected. "The biggest problem is to decide what it really is we want students to be learning and what activities we want them to spend their time on,'' Resnick says. "It's very much an issue of instruction and learning, and only secondarily one of assessment.'' Most tests, she adds, "haven't been developed from an instructional point of view from start to finish. We've been in the habit of throwing some words together and leaving the rest to the people who make tests in a back room.''
Once educational goals are established, teachers should consciously prepare their students for the exams and other assessments that measure progress in reaching those goals. To use a normally disparaging phrase, teachers should "teach to the test.''
"To some people, that implies we propose to decide what the curriculum will be,'' Tucker says. "Not true. If the goals are clear and a good measurement system is in place, then you can say to teachers and principals, 'You figure out how to get the kids to [meet] that standard. We will no longer tell you what the curriculum is going to be. We will no longer select the textbooks for you. We will no longer tell you how the day is to be divided up. It's up to you.' One of my hopes and expectations is that there will, in fact, be more freedom for teachers and principals to decide on curriculum matters than there has ever been before, precisely because we have made clear what the target is.''
Suppose, for instance, that the goal in writing calls for students to be able to compose a compelling essay that conveys a complex argument. After the exam has been around for a few years, Tucker says, and hundreds of examples of good essays have been released, teachers, students, and parents will have a good grasp of what's required. "But that tells you absolutely nothing about how to get kids to that point,'' he says. "It really is entirely up to the teacher.''
Both major teachers' unions have reacted favorably to the exam-system proposal, although they're watching closely to see how the project progresses. "They have a monumental challenge ahead,'' says Sharon Robinson, director of the National Education Association's center for innovation. "If they go off and develop this exam in isolation and somehow inject it into the system six or seven years hence, it will create a storm. But if they develop it and conduct this research within the professional environment, people will learn in the process.'' Bella Rosenberg, assistant to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, seconds that advice. "Without the involvement of teacher groups in particular,'' she says, "it's just not going to work. It's an old cliche, but, ultimately, it happens or doesn't happen in the classroom.''
Tucker the realist knows it won't happen overnight. "It will be a while before we know that we have made a lot of difference out there for a lot of teachers and a lot of kids,'' he says. But Tucker the optimist is confident the project can help reinvolve classroom teachers in creating curricula and guiding their own professional development: "If we figure out how to do it right, it will make an enormous contribution to improving our schools.''