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Marc Tucker

Why is the performance of students in other countries surpassing that of U.S. students? It’s a question that Marc S. Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C., sought to answer at a symposium last month focused on education reforms in other countries, including Canada, China, Finland, Japan and Singapore. The report, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform,” provides some scathing criticism of the U.S. for allowing other nations to catch up and then surpass America in K-12 education.

After the symposium, I spoke with Tucker about what we can learn from his group’s findings. Below are excerpts of our conversation.

The report indicates that countries outperforming the U.S. have developed strategies we have not. What are the key lessons about high performance we can take away from what is being done elsewhere?

In one phrase, the key lesson is there are no shortcuts. If you look at the essence of what these other countries have done, they have made their funding systems equitable in that they have put more money behind the kids who need more help to reach high standards, and less behind those who need less help. The U.S. does the reverse in the way that we fund our schools. In most states, it is at least 50 percent locally [funded], so the schools are a reflection of the taxable wealth of the community. So those communities that have high-value taxable real estate are able to get the very best teachers for their kids and the nicest buildings. Those that have the fewest resources—and kids with many problems—typically have the worst teachers. That is simply not true in most of the countries with high performance. Number two, these other countries understand that given the nature of modern industrial competition, they need to have high-school graduates who are educated to a standard that was formerly thought appropriate only for an elite group of kids. They pay their beginning teachers at levels comparable to those that young people in the highest professions can make coming out of college or graduate school, much more relatively speaking than in the U.S. They insist that all teachers, including elementary teachers, really understand the subjects they will teach in-depth. … They also insist that they know their craft. We [in the U.S.] pay our teachers badly and we don’t insist they know their subject. And we don’t insist they know their craft. It should surprise nobody that the kids don’t learn as well. And because they don’t learn as well, we get angry at the teachers and their unions. Our answer is test-and-accountability systems of a kind that none of these other countries have.

What actions are you hoping might be spurred by your report?

More equitable funding for secondary education, a raising of the standards to get into teacher-education, an increase in teacher pay to make it comparable to the higher-status professions. And we should be insisting that all teachers, including elementary-school teachers, have a firm command of the subjects they teach and that they really have mastered the craft. … Everywhere you look, we are taking shortcuts. There are no alternative routes [to teaching] in other countries.

What would it take to make your reform agenda a reality in the U.S.?

I think the first thing it takes is to have people in positions of power responding by realizing this agenda makes sense, because our governance system at least for education is not just one person. We are looking for states where there are key people who believe it makes sense. The second thing it takes is enough political stability to make it happen.

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