Though American education has taken few actual steps to pattern itself on other countries, in recent years we’ve displayed a near-obsessive interest in how we’re doing in relation to them (e.g. on TIMSS and PISA results), and in what they’re doing and how they do it. We at Fordham have found ourselves doing this a couple of times and we’ve periodically reviewed major analyses of “education success stories around the world” by the likes of McKinsey. We’ve also read our share—OK, more than our share—of paeans to Finland, Singapore, you name it. (At the U.S. Education Department, I helped lead a study of Japanese education as long ago as 1988.) I’ve also long admired Marc Tucker’s tireless efforts to get American educators and reformers to understand and appreciate how other nations address challenges that often resemble our own.
Which isn’t to say I always agree with him. And that’s true of his latest paper, too—drawn from a book coming out in September. He seeks to determine “what education policy might look like in the United States if it was [sic] based on the experiences of our most successful competitors.” In that role, he casts Canada (Ontario), Finland, and three East Asian lands (Japan, Singapore, and the Shanghai region of China.) And in fifty pages he offers a wealth of insights that are surely perceptive yet not entirely applicable on these shores, much as Marc would have us think they are.
Some are both familiar and basically applicable, such as “set clear goals,” have checkpoints along the way to gauge (and control) student progress, worry a lot about teacher quality (principals, too), finance schools equitably, strike the right balance between autonomy and accountability, strive for a coherent “system,” etc. Such observations are not new to readers of McKinsey and others who have gone down this path.
Where Marc gets into trouble (with me, anyway) is how he tries to convert some of these lessons for domestic use—especially the part about “consider[ing] the education system as one coherent whole.” Four of his overseas ”benchmark” examples have national education systems, run by the central government, and he seems at ease with America moving in that direction, not just via voluntary comings-together of states (e.g. the Common Core) but also through forceful actions by Uncle Sam.
The more useful example for us among those he has examined is Ontario, for Canada has no federal education department nor (to my knowledge) any involvement by the national government in the delivery or financing or even policy-setting for primary-secondary education. Marc never quite resolves the extent to which Ontario sticks out like a structural sore thumb, nor does he quite draw the lesson that might be most applicable here: American education surely needs a major overhaul of its education governance before it can successfully put into place the other changes in policy and practice that Marc urges (and that these other countries do). And yes, that will lead us away from “local control” as traditionally defined and operationalized in U.S. education. But it will and should lead us not to Washington but to a proper redefinition of the role of states (akin to Canadian provinces) and to the roles of individual schools, parents, and choice. Marc’s biggest blind spot, at least within the context of U.S. education reform circa 2011, is his “system knows best, just get the system right” mindset and his dismissal of the potential of competition and choice, properly structured and appropriately accountable, for accelerating the change we need in American education.
—Chester E. Finn, Jr.