Assessment Opinion


By Marc Tucker — November 29, 2011 3 min read
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This is the first post in a new blog for Education Week. The topic is what the countries with the best-performing education systems might have to teach the United States.

This is a vein that my organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy, has been mining for more than 20 years. But we learned early on that it was not wise to say so. All of the programs we have developed over the years--America’s Choice, New Standards, the National Institute for School Leadership, among others--and our major reports on education policy-- A Nation Prepared, America’s Choice: high skills or low wages! and Tough Choices or Tough Times--were based on our extensive research on the strategies used by the top-performing nations. But we discovered that when we said so, many people were not interested. They were deeply suspicious of ideas that came from abroad.

Perhaps they might have changed their minds if they knew that many of the ideas that underlie our current education system were borrowed from other countries--the idea of free public schooling from the Prussians, the idea of the research university from the Germans and the ideas of the liberal arts college and of the modern vocational training institute from the Scots.

But that was a long time ago. After World War II, the United States clearly had the most successful education system in the world and our work force had the highest proportion of workers with the equivalent of a high school diploma and of a four-year college degree. Educators came from all over the world to see how we did it. So we grew complacent.

We are not the leaders anymore. We haven’t been for a while. Most of the readers of this web site must know by now that we are in the middle of the pack among the countries surveyed by PISA on mathematics, reading and science, even though many of the countries in the survey are not among the leading industrial countries. We are number twelve in the proportion of the population with a high school diploma, fifth in the proportion with the equivalent of a college degree, but have fallen to twelfth in the number of 25-34 year olds with an Associate’s degree or higher. Not only are our low-income and minority students doing very poorly, but a growing number of other countries have larger proportions of their students scoring at the highest levels of the international comparative tests than we do. The socio-economic background of students makes more of a difference in academic achievement in the United States than it does in all but a handful of other countries. There are only two areas in which we excel. We spend more per student than any country except tiny Luxembourg, and we are alone among all the industrialized countries in seeing the proportion of young people with postsecondary credentials actually declining.

It is, of course, these statistics that account for rising interest in the United States in the strategies used by other countries that surpass us. These statistics made this blog possible. But lets not get carried away quite yet. Highly respected figures on both the left and the right of the political spectrum are arguing that there is little to be learned from other countries of much value. Many American teachers would agree. Some argue that America is so different from any of these other countries that nothing much will transfer. This is the argument of American exceptionalism. Some would say that there might be something to be learned, but we will never know what it is, because there is no research method available that can tell us with any certainty what our competitors are doing that accounts for their success. In my next two or three blogs, I will take these critics on.

Once that is done, I will get to the reason for doing this blog in the first place. That will happen in two ways. First, I will hold up the mirror of other country’s policies and practices and ask: Why do we do it the way we do it? Is it just because we have always done it that way? One of the great benefits of comparative studies is the way it makes you look at your own country with fresh eyes. There will be a lot of that in this blog. The second thing I will try to do is to suggest how we might do things differently in this country to get better results at lower cost, not by pursuing our ideological agendas, but as a result of looking closely at the principles underlying the policies and practices of our best competitors. I won’t be talking about imitating those policies and practices, which is a fool’s errand, but rather about putting together our own unique policies and practices, informed by our investigations of theirs. That is what benchmarking is all about. It is very different from the orthodoxies of American educational research practice. But more about that later.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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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