Why Innovation Can't Fix America's Classrooms

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Forget charter schools and grade-by-grade testing. It's time to look at the best-performing countries and pragmatically adapt their solutions.

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Reuters

Most Atlantic readers know that, although the U.S. spends more per student on K-12 education than any other nation except Luxembourg, students in a growing number of nations outperform our own. But think about this: Among the consistent top performers are not only developed nations (Japan, Finland, Canada), but developing countries and mega-cities such as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. 

Even if we find a way to educate our future work force to the same standards as this latter group -- and we are a very long way from that now -- wages in the United States will continue to decline unless we outperform those countries enough to justify our higher wages. That is a very tall order.

You would think that, being far behind our competitors, we would be looking hard at how they are managing to outperform us. But many policymakers, business leaders, educators and advocates are not interested. Instead, they are confidently barreling down a path of American exceptionalism, insisting that America is so different from these other nations that we are better off embracing unique, unproven solutions that our foreign competitors find bizarre.

Some of these uniquely American solutions -- charter schools, private school vouchers, entrepreneurial innovations, grade-by-grade testing, diminished teachers' unions, and basing teachers' pay on how their students do on standardized tests -- may be appealing on their surface. To many in the financial community, these market-inspired reform ideas are very appealing.

Yet, these proposed solutions are nowhere to be found in the arsenal of strategies used by the top-performing nations. And almost everything these countries are doing to redesign their education systems, we're not doing.

The top-performing nations have followed paths that are remarkably similar and straightforward. Most start by putting more money behind their hardest-to-educate students than those who are easier to educate. In the U.S., we do the opposite.

They develop world-class academic standards for their students, a curriculum to match the standards, and high-quality exams and instructional materials based on that curriculum. In the U.S., most states have recently adopted Common Core State Standards in English and math, which is a good start. But we still have a long way to go to build a coherent, powerful instructional system that all teachers can use throughout the whole curriculum.

The top-performing nations boost the quality of their teaching forces by greatly raising entry standards for teacher education programs. They insist that all teachers have in-depth knowledge of the subjects they will teach, apprenticing new teachers to master teachers and raising teacher pay to that of other high-status professions. They then encourage these highly trained teachers to take the lead in improving classroom practices.

The result is a virtuous cycle: teaching ranks as one of the most attractive professions, which means no teacher shortages and no need to waive high licensing standards. That translates into top-notch teaching forces and the world's highest student achievement. All of this makes the teaching profession even more attractive, leading to higher salaries, even greater prestige, and even more professional autonomy. The end results are even better teachers and even higher student performance.

In the U.S., on the other hand, teaching remains a low-status profession. Our teacher colleges have minimal admission standards, and most teachers are educated in professional schools with very little prestige. Once they start working, they are paid substantially less than other professionals. 

Many of our teachers also have a very weak background in the subjects they are assigned to teach, and increasingly, they're allowed to become teachers after only weeks of training. When we are short on teachers, we waive our already-low standards, something the high-performing countries would never dream of doing. 

All this leads to poor student achievement, which leads to even shriller attacks on the profession and more calls for stricter accountability -- and that makes it even less likely that our best and brightest will become teachers. And that leads to low student achievement.

Thirty years ago, Japan was eating the lunch of some of America's greatest corporations. Those U.S. companies who survived figured out how the Japanese were doing it--and did it even better. The most effective way to greatly improve student performance in the U.S. is to figure out what the top-performing countries are doing and then, by capitalizing on our unique strengths, develop a strategy to do it even better.

The apostles of exceptionalism say we need more innovation. But our problem is not lack of innovation. Our problem is that we lack what the most successful countries have: coherent, well-designed state systems of education that would allow us to scale up our many pockets of innovation and deliver a high-quality education to all our students.

Playing to our strengths makes sense. Ignoring what works, simply because it was invented elsewhere, does not.

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Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and editor of the book Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.

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