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A Real “System,” American Style

By Justin Baeder — October 19, 2012 2 min read
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I said recently that I don’t think our 13,000-plus school districts and states can coherently form an education “system” the way smaller nations like South Korea and Finland can, and for that reason, we will never see the same level of performance from our schools.

And yet, I must stop short of actually advocating for full federal control of schools. Such a takeover would (massive complications aside) surely reduce inequities, but it would be profoundly un-American. The researcher in me doesn’t find that a very compelling reason to stick with an inferior arrangement, but I don’t see local communities giving up control of schools lightly. Since nationalizing education would probably require something on the order of an amendment to the Constitution, it’s not going to happen, period.

But unlikely players are rapidly creating a “system” that has nothing to do with federal control. The Common Core State Standards Initiative is of course at the center of almost everything happening right now, and it was spearheaded by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, venerable public professional organizations which virtually no one had heard of prior to Common Core. Common Core was of course accelerated by Race to the Top—a top-down federal program if ever there was one—but is a voluntary, state-led initiative.

And Common Core is now leading to all kinds of new possibilities. An interesting one that I’ve posted about before is LearnZillion, a social venture offering lesson planning resources to teachers, to increase lesson quality, reduce the planning burden, and save teachers the trouble of reinventing the wheel (see my interview with founder Eric Westendorf here). Imagine if the quality of your child’s math lessons didn’t depend solely on how interested his 4th grade teacher was in the subject, and if there was an easy way for teachers to collaborate and improve their lessons. Thanks to Common Core and LearnZillion (and probably many other similar resources), now there is.

Assessment is of course a major and still largely “TBD” element of Common Core’s system-creating effect; the two assessment consortia (Smarter Balanced and PARCC) will have a powerful role not unlike that of a national education authority in creating de facto national standards for student performance.

Another major element of national education systems like Singapore’s is an approach to recruiting, training, and retaining high-quality educators. WIthout a national “top third” policy, the US is unlikely to dramatically change the teaching population. But organizations like NBPTS and Knowles are making a difference despite having no formal authority over US policy.

Ronald Thorpe, CEO of NBPTS, writes on his World Teachers’ Day EdWeek blog

The U.S. leads the world in every other profession, and we've done it through very conscious and strategic decisions, primarily coming from within those professions. There is no reason we shouldn't do the same in education. ...high performing countries typically come to the U.S. to learn best practice from us. Where we have difficulty taking these ideas to scale, however, they seem to figure out how to do that. Simply put, we are being bested by our own best ideas! ...it may be time to bring our best ideas to scale here at home, rather than wait to "discover" them as the reason for some other country's educational success story. link

As Thorpe suggests, other countries can take our best ideas to scale because they have a system, not 13,000 systems. I share his optimism that the profession can transform itself, with a little help from targeted legislation at the state and federal levels. I don’t have great confidence that professionalization and stronger professional norms will reduce inequities between schools in different communities, but they can provide some of the same benefits a strong nationalized education system would provide, and few of the drawbacks.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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