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The International Education Divide

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Is it possible that the U.S. has been heading in the wrong direction for most of the 30 years it has been focused on school reform? That's the conclusion a reader of "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" would be hard pressed not to draw. The paper, written largely by Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy, contrasts the approaches taken by five high performing (but quite different) entities -- Toronto, Japan, Finland, Shanghai and Singapore -- with what we have been doing here.

You can read the paper here.

The essential message: those places aren't doing any of the stuff we have focused on -- charter schools, alternate certification, small classes and pay for performance, to name a few of our 'magic bullets.' Instead, they have developed comprehensive systems: their teachers are drawn from the top of the class, are trained carefully and, if hired, are paid like other professionals. They spend more on the children who are the toughest to educate, they diagnose and intervene at the first sign of trouble, they expect their best teachers to work in the toughest schools, and they expect all students to achieve at high levels. They do not rely heavily on machine-scored multiple choice tests but are inclined to trust and respect the judgements of teachers. Their curriculum is coherent across the system, which eliminates problems created by students moving around.

And the paper doesn't spare unions. In other places there are professional unions, whereas here both the NEA and the AFT are industrial unions, focused on salaries and benefits and protections -- all adult issues. That must change, the paper says.

By contrast, think about our approach: Here schools of education accept a high percentage of applicants, the training is not demanding, we pay poor starting salaries and provide little assistance to beginning teachers, and the best teachers invariably migrate to the richer districts. The result is a system-wide attrition rate of 40 percent in the first five years (but that keeps the teacher-training institutions full!) Our curricula are out of sync and often incoherent, and we tend to spend more on the richest kids, not the neediest ones. Because we (perhaps appropriately) do not trust the poorly trained and under-qualified teachers we've hired, we spend money on 'teacher-proof' curricula and evaluate students using test scores and more test scores.

In the U.S. we don't have one system, or even 50 systems. We believe in these aforementioned magic bullets, whether it's charter schools, alternative certification, small classes, pay-for-performance or Teach for America. The others have comprehensive systems that have evolved over years. They benchmark carefully and make changes as necessary to remain competitive.

The paper was presented on Tuesday in Washington before an audience of policy wonks and others. Education Secretary Arne Duncan addressed the group, and that was completely appropriate because he did much to instigate these comparisons and contrasts when he (and the NEA) arranged for the first-ever Education Summit of high-achieving nations. That was held in New York earlier this year in conjunction with WNET's "Celebration of Teachers." (Cynics noted -- accurately -- that the ONLY way the U.S. could participate in a summit of high-achieving nations was to host it, but so what?)

Reporters like me weren't allowed to attend the deliberations, but I have been told by several people who were on hand that it was a wake-up call for Duncan and his staff to learn that no other country was doing what we are betting on.

In his speech on Tuesday, the Secretary gamely asserted that all the participants could learn, and were learning, from each other. He also appeared to endorse some of the recommendations Tucker's paper makes, while working overtime to point out that the federal government was NOT going to be setting standards, creating national tests, or doing anything that even slightly resembled a takeover.

"On the Shoulders of Giants" recommends that states step up to the plate and take over financing, in order to end the rich-poor disparities that now exist. It says that teacher training has to be elevated and that admission standards have to be raised.

I moderated a panel after the Secretary's speech. Two union leaders, AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA Executive Director John Wilson, were two of the four panelists, and they agreed that an essential step would be the adoption of professional behavior. They said it would be possible to write what one called a 'slim' contract of 6-8 pages that laid out essential provisions: due process, some say in hiring, a role in evaluation, a role in developing curricula and assessments, and other professional issues. There's no need to specify how late a teacher can get there in the morning and how early she can leave in the afternoon, in other words.

Two other panelists, Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society and Mari Koerner, the dynamic dean of the school of education at Arizona State University, deepened the conversation. Ms Stewart has contributed her own paper about the five countries/cities/provinces, which will be released next week -- although you can get a preview here. At ASU, Dean Koerner explained, she has raised standards--so much so that she has lost students who were looking for an easy way to earn a diploma. ('Good riddance,' she implied.)

So what should teachers who want to be respected and paid like professionals do? If they are impatient, they probably have to move to Toronto, Japan, Finland, Shanghai or Singapore, but be warned: those systems hire only one out of every six or eight applicants!

Otherwise, get working at the state level on systemic change. In my closing comment, I suggested that a more appropriate title for Marc's paper (had it not been taken already) would have been "An Inconvenient Truth," because he and the NCEE are calling for 'climate change' in education.

Accompanying Marc Tucker's paper is a fascinating document, "Ten Myths about Education in the U.S." Read and argue, but read

Unfortunately, we Americans cling to our belief in 'magic bullets.' But I have news for you. They don't call them 'magic tricks' for nothing. It's because they are TRICKS. As for bullets, they kill, and "Death by 1000 Magic Bullets" is still dead.

I urge you to read the papers and share your thoughts here.