Improving U.S. Education and Surpassing Shanghai

By Catherine A. Cardno — April 30, 2012 2 min read
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How would we redesign the American education system if the aim were to take advantage of everything that has been learned by the countries with the best education systems, in order to build a system better than any that now exists anywhere?

This question is the basis of Marc S. Tucker’s recent edited volume, Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems (Harvard Education Press, 2011). It’s an interesting premise, and the essays included in the volume examine the countries with the highest performing systems (part I of the book) and how the United States can improve its current education performance based on how these successful systems operate (part II). With only six contributors, the book is not your traditional collection of essays and many of the authors wrote, or co-wrote, more than one essay.

Reviews of the book have been mixed. Jay P. Greene’s review, which appeared on the Education Next website, disagreed with the book’s premise. Greene does not believe in “best practices,” writing that, “If imitation were the path to excellence, art museums would be filled with paint-by-number works.” In his review, Greene argues that, “Since there is no scientific method to identifying the critical features of success in the best-practices approach, we simply have to trust the authority of the authors that they have correctly identified the relevant factors and have properly perceived the causal relationships.” For Greene, neither Tucker nor the other contributing authors adequately prove in their essays that the characteristics they choose to discuss actually led to successful education systems.

Tucker’s response, which appeared on, as well as in his Top Performers Blog—which is hosted by Education Week—took the line that, “Unhappy with our conclusions, he [Greene] chooses not to debate them, but to savagely attack our goals, our methods, and me personally.”

Jack Jennings, who wrote about Surpassing Shanghai on the Huffington Post’s The Blog, took a more balanced approach, noting that “Some will argue that the United States is unique—that what brings success in other countries is not relevant to our situation,” before concluding that “now is a good time to ask whether we are on the right path to better schools. If not, we had better change fast if we want to be competitive in the world.”

I’m interested in hearing what you all think about Surpassing Shanghai and its ideas, as well as the premise: Do you think it is useful to examine those groups who have been successful, in order to explore ideas on how to improve education within the United States at large?

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.