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Panel: U.S. Can’t Readily Replicate Educational Turnaround of Other Countries


Marc Tucker, president and CEO of The National Center on Education and the Economy, argued for a stronger role for state departments of education.Marc Tucker, president and CEO of The National Center on Education and the Economy, argued for a stronger role for state departments of education.

WASHINGTON — Education governance in the United States is too disjointed and too diffuse to achieve the kind of massive redesign needed to get the nation’s academic results on par with those in other top-performing countries.

That was one of the key arguments advanced Tuesday at the Center for American Progress during a panel discussion, titled “What Can U.S. Learn from Other Countries?”

The proponent of the argument was Marc Tucker, president and CEO of The National Center on Education and the Economy.

Tucker said if countries with high-wage economies, such as the United States, cannot get their mass education systems to educate all students at a standard previously reserved for society’s elite, then the standard of living in those countries will decline, a process he said has already begun in the United States in light of the stagnation of real wages that has taken place in recent decades.

“We’re in a world now, a situation, in which effective governance structure — in particular something that looks like a ministry of education — is absolutely essential to the redesign and success of education systems in the new environment,” Tucker said. “The United States is uniquely badly positioned to do that. We are at an enormous disadvantage.”

Tucker argued for a stronger role for state departments of education, saying the state agencies are better suited than the federal government or local school boards to implement the massive changes needed to achieve better academic results. But under the status quo, he said, the United States is an international “outlier” because so many different educational agencies are involved in how schools operate.

“At the state level in the United States, the autonomy that is needed to redesign the system is so widely dispersed, it has no analog anywhere on Earth,” Tucker said.

Lydia Logan, managing director of Chiefs for Change, Foundation for Excellence in Education, said members of her group would welcome a stronger role for state departments of education.

“They would love to have a streamlined governance structure to make it easier to focus on the task at hand rather than the politics around them,” Logan said. “It would be easier if you didn’t have to go through multiple bodies to get answers and jump through multiple political hoops to get answers.”

One problem, however, is that state education chiefs typically serve for such a short duration that, by the time they figure out who to put in place to get the job done, “you’re halfway out the door,” Logan said.

Tucker also argued for a greater emphasis on teacher development.

If you talk to educational leaders in the countries with which the United States is competing, Tucker said, virtually all of them will identify teacher quality as the top priority.

Tucker expounds on his arguments in a newly-released paper, titled Governing American Education: Why This Dry Subject May Hold the Key to Advances in American Education.

The paper — which examines educational governance in Australia, Canada, China, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Singapore — is not without its critics. Among those who found fault with the paper is Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Finn said it is unrealistic to assume that state governments can achieve with their education agencies the kind of efficiencies and effectiveness that have proven elusive in all other state agencies.

Finn also cautioned against acceptance of the idea that what works in Shanghai will automatically work in the United States.

“I would not want to assume we can simply Xerox another country’s arrangements and think they would work equally the same here,” Finn said.

At the same time, Finn said he found merit in a practice in Shanghai whereby strong schools “adopt” weaker ones in an effort to improve their performance.

The practice was elucidated by co-panelist Ben Jensen, School Education Program Director at The Grattan Institute, in a newly-released Center for American Progress paper, titled School Turnaround in Shanghai: the Empowered-Management Program Approach to Improving School Performance.

“We’ve done such a miserably awful job of school turnarounds in this country,” Finn said, explaining that the U.S. is good at identifying schools that need to be turned around but not actually turning schools around.

“The Shanghai approach is kind of a tough love approach that makes sense to try,” Finn said. He said he saw no reason why a principal at a strong-performing school in the United States could not run several weak-performing schools.

“But they have to be empowered to do so,” Finn said.

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