11/24/2010 01:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pretending to Confront the Global Achievement Gap

In his defense of mayoral control over New York City schools, Michael Bloomberg brags that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called New York City school reform a model for the nation. If New York City schools are their model, Duncan and Obama are even more clueless about education than they are about priming the economy or ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two areas were they have so far failed miserably.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece columnist Thomas Friedman joined the growing list of people who know nothing about education but feel they have all of the solutions. Friedman, in his columns, often has an interesting idea, but he generally takes it in the wrong direction. "Teaching for America" (November 21, 2010) is no exception. In the essay, Friedman strongly endorses Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Barack Obama's vision of an educational future for the United States, especially their Race to the Top.

To bolster his case, Friedman reports on ideas about education taken from The Global Achievement Gap by educator Tony Wagner. Wagner, who co-directs the Change Leadership Group in the Harvard University School of Education, argues there are three basic skills that students need if they are going to thrive in a 21st century knowledge based economy. They must have the ability to think critically and solve problems. They must be able to communicate effectively. They also must be able to work collaboratively. I agree very much with these educational goals. Unfortunately, Friedman fails to explain how any of these goals will be achieved by the Duncan/Obama test-driven initiative.

Friedman and Duncan are especially enamored by countries like Finland and Denmark whose students are supposedly "leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills." They invest heavily in recruiting, training, and supporting teachers and are able "to attract and retain the best." Friedman and Duncan also sing the praises of Singapore and South Korea where they "don't let anyone teach who doesn't come from the top third of their graduating class."

Duncan hopes to replicate their success with a "national teacher campaign" to recruit new talent and a new National Education Academy modeled on the United States' military academies. But it is not likely either intense recruitment or a national academy will be magic bullets. Among other problems, according to a study published by the Economics Policy Institute, "Compared to other countries, United States flunks in teacher pay." In 2008, the starting salary earned by teachers in South Korea was 141 percent of the per capita Gross Domestic product. In Finland, teachers earn 95 percent, but in the United States they earn only 81 percent. In 2010, the United States per capita GDP was $46,400, which would mean to be competitive with South Korea, starting teachers would have to be paid $65,425 a year instead of approximately $42,000.

Friedman and Duncan are either willfully ignorant or consciously misleading about the countries they want the United States to emulate. I would like American students to achieve the highest levels of education, and I would like higher teacher pay, but these countries are hardly examples to follow or that can be followed. Essentially these are all small homogeneous societies that have found a comfortable niche in the global economy that has made it possible to pay teachers higher salaries and provide a high quality education for most of their young people.

South Korea is among the world's most ethnically homogeneous nations and was a military dictatorship for much of the second half of the 20th century. Its economy is largely dependent on foreign trade, especially to the United States. Without this trade it would be hard pressed to remain either prosperous or a democracy and to maintain its school system.

In Finland and Denmark, not only are populations homogeneous, but the countries are tiny. The population of each is a little over five million people or about the combined population of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. Finland and Denmark are also well known for the scope of their social service programs, free public higher education and health care, and worker pensions, programs I support, but not likely to be implemented in the United States.

Singapore, an island city in Southeast Asia, has a population under five million. A major financial center, it functions more as a corporation than as a country and has been rated as the most business-friendly economy in the world by the World Bank. Although it has an elected Parliament, it is essentially a one-party state. Nearly half of its population is made up of foreign workers and students with no political rights.

If the United States is going to educate all of its children like these countries apparently do, it will have to finally come to terms with its racial, ethnic, and class divisions. Not only will it have to pay teachers significantly more, but it will have to provide an array of social services to families, and ensure students that if they do perform well and graduate from college they will be able to secure well-paying jobs and have decent lives. Otherwise Freidman and Duncan are just pretending to support improved teacher preparation and higher student performance.