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Why Other Countries Keep Outperforming Us in Education (and How to Catch Up)

Money from the American Rescue Plan could be our last best chance to build the school system we need
By Marc Tucker — May 13, 2021 5 min read
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The Biden administration has put an enormous amount of money on the table for our schools and, apparently, as much as 10 years to spend it. The potential for the improvement of the performance of our schools is unprecedented, provided that policymakers use it well.

The economic stakes are hard to overstate. Thirty countries now outperform the United States in mathematics at the high school level. Many are ahead in science, too. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the millennials in our workforce tied for last on tests of mathematics and problem solving among the millennials in the workforces of all the industrial countries tested. We now have the worst-educated workforce in the industrialized world. Because our workers are among the most highly paid in the world, that makes a lot of Americans uncompetitive in the global economy. And uncompetitive against increasingly smart machines. It is a formula for a grim future.

The idea of significantly boosting the achievement of the average American high school graduate and making American workers once again the best educated in the world, coming from the bottom of the pack, seems like a pipe dream. After all, there has been no improvement in high school math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress after more than 40 years of trying every “proven practice” we can think of.

Yet the evidence that it is not a pipe dream is staring us in the face. It’s all those countries that have education systems that are outperforming ours. If they can do it, then we can do it. But we have to figure out how they did it and use that information to develop strategies that will work for us.

The National Center on Education and the Economy, the organization I headed for 30 years, has been doing just that for decades.

We now have the worst-educated workforce in the industrialized world.

We’ve learned two very important things. First, though the countries that are outperforming us have value systems and cultures very different from each other, most of the strategies they have used to get to top performance (while increasing equity) are very similar. If that is true, then those differences in culture and values are irrelevant. There is nothing standing in the way of using their strategies. Second, the most important thing that distinguishes education in our states from education in these other countries is that all of them have systems of education that hang together, systems that are coherent, in which each policy supports the other policies at every level of the system, from the classroom to the top of the ministry of education. With rare exceptions, we have no such system.

Raising academic standards, for example, works only when instituted as part of a whole system of innovations designed to mesh. The Common Core State Standards failed because teachers were being judged against student performance on tests that did not measure what the teachers were supposed to teach, there were no curriculum materials available to support what the students were supposed to learn, the teachers had never been taught to teach what their students were supposed to learn, the way students progressed through the grades had not been redesigned against the targets specified by the standards, and no effort was made to reorganize the work of teachers so that they would have more time for students who would need additional help to reach the standards. This is but a small sample of the factors that are routinely taken into account in the design of education systems that deliver much better results at the scale of a state or large city system.

See also

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The National Center on Education and the Economy has traced the trajectories of dozens of countries as they have gone from widespread illiteracy to highly educated and skilled, some of them in just a few decades. But none of them has done it overnight. Again and again, we see that the reforms that work and endure through many changes in political leadership are those that begin with a process of goal setting and system design that takes years. The process involves many stakeholders in many discussions that leads in turn to a shared understanding of the challenges facing the nation or state and the ways others who have had success have addressed those challenges. That builds a broadly shared consensus on the path forward. As those plans coalesce into a design, those who will have to implement the design are asked to plan it, and at least as much effort is put into planning for implementation as was put into the design itself. More often than not, the implementation period lasts 10 to 20 years.

That’s not how we usually do things here. New political leaders, once in power, decide on a few narrowly defined initiatives that they think they can get passed and implemented within the current election cycle. A bill is drafted, a few hearings are held, the usual suspects testify, and the bill is passed. Few educators pay much attention because they know that the next administration will have no investment in their predecessors’ agenda, but will have its own, which will also be largely ignored, for the same reason.

The Biden administration has given our states an incredible gift: enough time and money to involve a great many stakeholders in thinking hard about what the future will bring and how their entire system will have to change. That should lead to carefully researching the strategies used by much higher-performing systems to get much better performance and more equity at lower cost; coming up with a sound plan; and then taking a decade or more to implement it, rather than railroading it through, dooming it to failure.

Educators need to seize this opportunity. First, because they care about this country and its youth. Second, because if the Biden administration succeeds in opening the faucets of federal spending on the scale it has in mind, and five or 10 years from now, there is still no significant improvement in results, the whole country will turn on the educators and the No Child Left Behind era will look like a picnic.

Maryland recently spent three years planning the kind of sweeping and sensible redesign I’m suggesting, got overwhelming support in the legislature, and is now embarked on its 10-year plan. Yes, your state can do it, too.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 2021 edition of Education Week as Why Other Countries Keep Outperforming Us in Education (and How to Catch Up)


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