08/08/2012 04:31 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Hey Tom -- Competing With China Is Not the Point

Tom Friedman has a new column about education in which he almost makes an important point about the state of K-12 schooling in America, and what we can do to improve it.

The thing Friedman gets right is the easy part -- the fact that despite the willingness of American politicians to keep beating the xenophobic drums and lead the chant for everything to be "made in America," American businesses are already operating in the flat world of globalization and cost efficiency. Consequently, Friedman writes, "the trend is that for more and more jobs, average is over." In other words, if you aren't uniquely skilled to succeed in the modern world, it's only a matter of time before you'll be back looking for work.

Fair enough. But then Friedman shifts to talk about international scores on the PISA test, and America's consistent mediocrity vis a vis the rest of the world. Then he quotes the OECD's Andreas Schleicher, who asks us to "imagine, in a few years, [that] you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world." According to Schleicher, parents could then "take this information to your local superintendent and ask: 'Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?'"

I'm sorry, what?

Don't get me wrong -- in the modern world of school choice, parents need more and better ways to compare schools, and the PISA is probably the best test out there for gauging the overall health of a nation's educational quality (largely because its questions tend to be more open-ended and challenging than the U.S. versions, which are often straight multiple-choice). I'd even bet Schleicher envisions that when American parents learn, say, that Finland has a completely different approach to teacher recruitment and development, they will start demanding that we abandon our crisis response to the teaching shortage (i.e. Teach for America) and devise our own Marshall Plan for the profession.

I'd love it if that happened. And it never will if our lead vehicle is a web site that helps parents compare America's PISA scores to China's.

Why? Because America needs to have another conversation first -- the one that actually clarifies what we now know about how people learn.

The good news is ... we know a lot. More than ever before, we can assemble a picture of the ways our brains respond to and make sense of information. We can help people diagnose their individual strengths and weaknesses. And we can offer models of schooling that previous generations could only dream about -- models in which children not only love going to school, but actually acquire relevant skills and understandings about themselves and the world.

The bad news is we aren't having that conversation, and we aren't elevating those stories. We talk about "achievement" as though it's a proxy for "learning," when in fact it's a proxy for "3rd and 8th grade reading and math scores." We propose incentive structures for adults that ignore what we know about how motivation works in human beings. And we propose comparing schools to other ones around the world before we actually understand what a healthy and high-functioning school really looks like -- and requires.

What Schleicher envisions is right in spirit: a comparison platform that would empower parents, principals and teachers to demand something better. Until we deepen our collective capacity to imagine something bigger than the world of schooling the rest of us experienced, however, all a platform like that will do is sharpen our ability to demand a set of reforms that perfect our ability to succeed in a system that no longer serves our interests.