by Marc S. Tucker
This paper is the answer to a question: What would the education policies and practices of the United States be if they were based on the policies and practices of the countries that now lead the world in student performance? It is adapted from the last two chapters of a book to be published in September 2011 by Harvard Education Press. Other chapters in that book describe the specific strategies pursued by Canada (focusing on Ontario),China (focusing on Shanghai), Finland, Japan and Singapore, all of which are far ahead of the United States. The research on these countries was performed by a team assembled by the National Center on Education and the Economy, at the request of the OECD.
A century ago, the United States was among the most eager benchmarkers in the world.We took the best ideas in steelmaking, industrial chemicals and many other fields fromEngland and Germany and others and put them to work here on a scale that Europe couldnot match. At the same time, we were borrowing the best ideas in education, mainlyfrom the Germans and the Scots. It was the period of the most rapid growth our economyhad ever seen and it was the time in which we designed the education system that we stillhave today. It is fair to say that, in many important ways, we owe the current shape of our education system to industrial benchmarking.But, after World War II, the United States appeared to reign supreme in both theindustrial and education arenas and we evidently came to the conclusion that we had littleto learn from anyone. As the years went by, one by one, country after country caught upto and then surpassed us in several industries and more or less across the board in pre-college education. And still we slept.Until US Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked the OECD to produce a report on thestrategies that other countries had used to outpace us, and then called an unprecedentedmeeting in New York City of education ministers and union heads from the countries thatscored higher on the education league tables than the United States. Now, once again, theUnited States seems to be ready to learn from the leading countries.In this paper, we stand on the shoulders of giants, asking what education policy mightlook like in the United States if it was based on the experience of our most successfulcompetitors. We rely on research conducted by a team assembled by the National Center on Education and the Economy, at the request of the OECD, which examined thestrategies employed by Canada (focusing on Ontario), China (focusing on Shanghai),Finland, Japan and Singapore. But we also rely on other research conducted by theOECD, by other researchers and, over two decades, by the National Center on Educationand the Economy.