The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) has presented a new paper that appears to understand what is needed to improve American education, titled Standing on the Shoulder of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform.
Notably, its recommendations are free of solutions that characterize much of current debates such as charter schools, teacher accountability, merit pay, de-unionization of teachers and other misguided market-based panaceas propagated by many politicians and non-educators.
The author, Marc Tucker, presents the contrasting approaches of five high-performing countries: Canada, Finland, Singapore, Japan, and China (Shanghai). Though different, all of them have developed a balanced, comprehensive, and unified system of education contrary to that of the United States, where:
1) Teachers are rigorously screened, trained (with apprenticeship periods under master teachers), and supported — and thus professionalized and paid comparatively well;
2) Funds are spent more on the neediest students, who are diagnosed at the first sign of trouble and thoroughly supported by the best teachers, not the least experienced;
3) The national curriculum goes far beyond mathematics and the home language, covering the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and music, and often, religion, morals or, in the case of Finland, philosophy; they tend to strike the right balance between high-level content mastery, problem-solving ability, and the ability to demonstrate a capacity for independent thought, creativity and innovation;
4) High value is placed in their national policies on the mastery of complex skills and problem solving at a high level as opposed to mastery of basic skills; as a result, there is less multiple-choice standardized tests that are scored by computers, allowing teachers autonomy and authority to instruct and create; and
5) National control over funding is designed to distribute resources in ways intended to enable all students to achieve high standards.
One of the things I found most fascinating was how Tucker compared the different management paradigms between the U.S. and other countries using the two great management gurus in the last century – Frederick Taylor, who codified the methods of scientific management, and Peter Drucker, who embraced a knowledge economy. The former’s style epitomized the era of mass production and how manufacturing products can be streamlined with little skill. This outmoded style is similar to the way America’s education system trains its teachers in order to produce students who merely meet basic proficiency. On the other hand, countries like Singapore and Finland prize the professionals’ ability to apply their knowledge to challenges faced every day, one that Drucker deemed crucial in a knowledge-based economy. Unfortunately, our education system is not geared to meet such 21st century needs.
I have some minor criticisms of this paper. One is the NCEE’s recommendation to apply these changes only on a state, not national level. Education is seen as a national issue in the top-performing countries, where the curriculum is unified and funding is equally allocated. How can we create such collective improvements through individual state control? Second, though Tucker’s recommendations are limited to school-based changes, there needs to be concurrent social and family policy changes that would facilitate a culture of education in the U.S. (particularly for disadvantaged children). In other words, children need to be school-ready: well-fed, motivated, and eager to learn. This comes mainly from family and culture. Without students in the right frame of mind and body, top-down changes are useless.
In the end, the NCEE was “struck by the attention that [was] being given to achieving clarity and consensus on the goals for education in those countries.” I had previously called for an overarching mission statement for American eduction. Following a focused goal and the NCEE’s recommendation as a blueprint, schools can take its first real step towards an educated society. Will our leaders listen?