The international divide

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

Is it possible that the US has been heading in the wrong direction for most of the 30 years it has been focused on school reform? That’s the conclusion a reader of “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” would be hard pressed not to draw. The paper, written largely by Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy, contrasts the approaches taken by five high performing (but quite different) entities — Toronto, Japan, Finland, Shanghai and Singapore — with what we have been doing here.

You can read the paper here.

The essential message: those places aren’t doing any of the stuff we have focused on — charter schools, alternate certification, small classes and pay for performance, to name a few of our ‘magic bullets.’ Instead, they have developed comprehensive systems: their teachers are drawn from the top of the class, are trained carefully and, if hired, are paid like other professionals. They spend more on the children who are the toughest to educate, they diagnose and intervene at the first sign of trouble, they expect their best teachers to work in the toughest schools, and they expect all students to achieve at high levels. They do not rely heavily on machine-scored multiple choice tests but are inclined to trust and respect the judgements of teachers. Their curriculum is coherent across the system, which eliminates problems created by students moving around.

And the paper doesn’t spare unions. In other places there are professional unions, whereas here both the NEA and the AFT are industrial unions, focused on salaries and benefits and protections — all adult issues. That must change, the paper says.

By contrast, think about our approach: Here schools of education accept a high percentage of applicants, the training is not demanding, we pay poor starting salaries and provide little assistance to beginning teachers, and the best teachers invariably migrate to the richer districts. The result is a system-wide attrition rate of 40% in the first five years (but that keeps the teacher-training institutions full!) Our curricula are out of sync and often incoherent, and we tend to spend more on the richest kids, not the neediest ones. Because we (perhaps appropriately) do not trust the poorly trained and under-qualified teachers we’ve hired, we spend money on ‘teacher-proof’ curricula and evaluate students using test scores and more test scores.

In the US we don’t have one system, or even 50 systems. We believe in these aforementioned magic bullets, whether it’s charter schools, alternative certification, small classes, pay-for-performance or Teach for America. The others have comprehensive systems that have evolved over years. They benchmark carefully and make changes as necessary to remain competitive.

Toronto Students
These students are from a Toronto elementary school. Is it safe to say they're learning more than US counterparts?

The paper was presented on Tuesday in Washington before an audience of policy wonks and others. Education Secretary Arne Duncan addressed the group, and that was completely appropriate because he did much to instigate these comparisons and contrasts when he (and the NEA) arranged for the first-ever Education Summit of high-achieving nations. That was held in New York earlier this year in conjunction with WNET’s “Celebration of Teachers.” (Cynics noted — accurately — that the ONLY way the US could participate in a summit of high-achieving nations was to host it, but so what?)

Reporters like me weren’t allowed to attend the deliberations, but I have been told by several people who were on hand that it was a wake-up call for Duncan and his staff to learn that no other country was doing what we are betting on.

In his speech on Tuesday, the Secretary gamely asserted that all the participants could learn, and were learning, from each other. He also appeared to endorse some of the recommendations Tucker’s paper makes, while working overtime to point out that the federal government was NOT going to be setting standards, creating national tests, or doing anything that even slightly resembled a takeover.

“On the Shoulders of Giants” recommends that states step up to the plate and take over financing, in order to end the rich-poor disparities that now exist. It says that teacher training has to be elevated and that admission standards have to be raised.

I moderated a panel after the Secretary’s speech. Two union leaders, AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA Executive Director John Wilson, were two of the four panelists, and they agreed that an essential step would be the adoption of professional behavior. They said it would be possible to write what one called a ‘slim’ contract of 6-8 pages that laid out essential provisions: due process, some say in hiring, a role in evaluation, a role in developing curricula and assessments, and other professional issues. There’s no need to specify how late a teacher can get there in the morning and how early she can leave in the afternoon, in other words.

Two other panelists, Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society and Mari Koerner, the dynamic dean of the school of education at Arizona State University, deepened the conversation. Ms Stewart has contributed her own paper about the five countries/cities/provinces, which will be released next week — although you can get a preview here. At ASU, Dean Koerner explained, she has raised standards–so much so that she has lost students who were looking for an easy way to earn a diploma. (‘Good riddance,’ she implied.)

So what should teachers who want to be respected and paid like professionals do? If they are impatient, they probably have to move to Toronto, Japan, Finland, Shanghai or Singapore, but be warned: those systems hire only one out of every six or eight applicants!

Otherwise, get working at the state level on systemic change. In my closing comment, I suggested that a more appropriate title for Marc’s paper (had it not been taken already) would have been “An Inconvenient Truth,” because he and the NCEE are calling for ‘climate change’ in education.

Accompanying Marc Tucker’s paper is a fascinating document, “Ten Myths about Education in the US.” Read and argue, but read.

Unfortunately, we Americans cling to our belief in ‘magic bullets.’ But I have news for you. They don’t call them ‘magic tricks’ for nothing. It’s because they are TRICKS. As for bullets, they kill, and “Death by 1000 Magic Bullets” is still dead.

I urge you to read the papers and share your thoughts here.

29 thoughts on “The international divide

  1. I read the papers and have found that to elevate the profession means to allow the professional organizations within that profession, including teacher preparation programs, to set the standards for that profession. Ken Goodman’s “Declaration of Professional Conscience for Teachers” (available for download from:×17.pdf) is all I’ve used since I first found it. It has been around for over 20 years. Check it out – it will make you think just what being a professional teacher and learner is and could be.


  2. So what’s new? Duncan is like Rip van Winkle, modern version. He has been asleep and when he wakes up simply can’t deal with the last fifty years. Stuck in privatization bs, obsessed with the ideas that a failed economic system that would have brought it down other than for government, non privatized cash, he looks at the executives who have failed the nation to reform the schools. This sounds like an essay by Jonathan Swift.


  3. Hi John: For over twenty years, as founder of a family education and child development company I have been advocating to parents that if they leave their kids cognitive, social, emotional and physical education and skill development up to the schools (private or public, rich or poor) and teachers, they will be transferring their parental responsibilities to strangers who may be caring people and who may try to perform their jobs, but are not going to do as good of a job as each parent can do with their own child. Early years of development for each child from infant to 14 years old is a critical factor in the foundation that child builds in each area of development and the results will effect that child, his or her family, and their life outcomes.

    Educating a child is a partnership between parents, children and teachers. These partnerships
    should be based on sound detailed contracts between the parties that outline the expected outcomes based on the performance of each member of the partnership and each party should be held accountable for their performance in developing that child into a life long learner and contributor to making a better world for all of us to live in.

    School management and teachers cannot do this without the support of parents and parents need good school management and teachers to provide an indepth and broad range of quality educational experiences for each child. The interferrence caused by outside influences such as politics and unions in the education of our children has to be eliminated and replaced with fair and just laws, as well as reasonable and equitable standards, that provide for the best interests of our children and for the future of the United States as a leader in improving life throughout the world.

    We are committed to the basics of matching children with the right tools for their individual learning and development by helping parents and teachers do the best job they can in educating the children of our world.


  4. Yes, it’s more than possible that we’re heading in the wrong direction.

    While this piece talks about lots of things in comparing how other good school-nations do it (including getting better teachers from the get- go and paying them well, etc., etc., and not focusing on charter schools, testing, accountability, vouchers, etc., etc., I will write about only one of those aspects.

    Testing and accountability…

    I believe that our curent obsession with accountability to “get rid of bad teachers” is over the top– it’s like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. It’s too much. Too complicated. Too, too, too. And it’s not going to change our system–as most teachers are already good enough and many teachers are excellent. We are upending the entire system in order to be able to fire perhaps 5%- 10% of teaching staff. Makes no sense to me.

    I recently got a whiff of this…. I had put in a proposal to speak to a superintendents summer conference about reforming special education. The proposal was rejected, as I was told there’s no room on the program because it’s all devoted to evaluating teachers. Really? I do believe we are heading in the wrong direction.


  5. John keeps saying we’re into magic bullets. Every teacher I know has been saying since NCLB’s inception that the reform trajectory is wrong and that there are no magic bullets.

    It is non-educators who believe in magic. Will they listen to teachers? Not as long as the media keep up their BS about magic bullets.


    • Whoa…
      I didn’t say that teachers believe in magic bullets. I said that the decision makers do, and the evidence supports that. What’s more, they are impatient and don’t give their magic solutions a chance to succeed or fail; instead they pull them up by the roots to see if they are growing, as the expression goes.
      Examples abound, and I agree that very few teachers would buy into them. But we don’t have a coherent system and others do, which is the point of the piece.


  6. I am producing a series of videos that profile successful performers and reformers as measured by the most recent PISA results. You can see them here: Our goal was to tell the story from the top down – starting with policy initiatives, then following them down to the level of the school where they matter most. Not all of the systems profiled currently (Ontario, Shanghai, Finland, Poland) or the ones that will be added soon (Brazil, Germany, Portugal, and Singapore) are the highest performers (though some are), but all are either high performers or have improved significantly over the last ten years. Some countries – simply because they may be at different states of economic development – have very specific issues connected to reforming their educational systems that perhaps don’t transfer well to the United States. But by and large, if there are common threads running through each story – and ones that can benefit American educators, they are these: improve teacher quality and professionalize teaching practice; give schools and teachers greater autonomy to design and execute curriculum; give students more responsibility to direct their own learning pathways; personalize and give greater attention to individual learning needs; give more equitable access to quality education; actively share best practices and codify and distribute successful ones; compare the performances of schools across the system.


  7. As someone who has worked in Japanese public schools, the assertion that Japanese teachers are well paid or that Japanese schools do not rely heavily on testing are false. In fact, many families send their children from an early age to private test-prep schools at night, as the public high school and university a student is admitted to is wholly dependent on the exam results. The Japanese excel in Math and Science because of family values and family pressure to excel. American family values (in general) are different. John Merrow did not do his research.


    • I was providing a short hand summary of the NCEE report, which I hope you and others will read. Apologies for misleading anyone, because the Japanese tutoring is well known. The report disputes your point about salaries, however.


    • Though I am by no means an expert on Japanese family values, I do know that much of their success in math has been shown to be due to a rigorous, inquiry-based curriculum that focuses on process and problem solving. Math curriculum in the U.S. is often focused on rote skills like memorization because teachers feel they have to prep kids for standardized tests. As a high school math teacher in Brooklyn, I can attest to the degree to which the breadth of topics covered by the standards hampers my ability to design curriculum that allows students to engage in real inquiry and problem solving.


  8. While Tucker has for many years dismissed the idea giving educators and parents a chance to create distinctive public schools, Toronto thinks this is a good idea. Here’s what their district website says, before listing 41 such options. Toronto does not see these schools as “magic bullet,” using Merrow’s dismissive term. Neither do people such as myself who see this as valuable, but certainly not the total solution.
    Here’s the introduction to this section.

    “TDSB Alternative schools offer students and parents something different from mainstream schooling. Each alternative school, whether elementary or secondary is unique, with a distinct identity and approach to curriculum delivery. They usually feature a small student population, a commitment to innovative and experimental programs, and volunteer commitment from parents/guardians and other community members. While the schools offer Ministry approved courses, these courses are delivered in a learning environment that is flexible and meets the needs of individual students.

    In all alternative secondary schools students complete credit courses. Courses may be delivered through large group instruction, smaller cooperative groups, an independent study program, or other forms of learning that are negotiated with the teachers. Programs and program delivery models vary from school to school. Each school’s small student population typically includes a variety of ages and grade levels and provides a nurturing environment for students who benefit from having staff know them individually. Different secondary schools begin at different grades and offer different pathways where “success is the only option”.

    Each alternative school, whether elementary or secondary, is a school of choice and has its own distinct culture. With such a wide range of alternative schools representing a host of different program delivery models, it is important for students and their families to visit a variety of alternative schools before choosing one that best meets their needs.”


  9. Here’s a 3 minute tv story that interviews students at a school that makes extensive use of, and helps improve, the Mississippi River. I’m a big fan of listening to students. Many of them are not satisfied with large traditional high schools.

    Incidentally, some years ago, as a St. Paul Public School teacher, I received a grant to take students down the Mississipi River, as this school does. Despite strong support from the families – in writing – and extensive medical and legal support from some of the parents, the district refused to allow this. Of course, they continued to allow football, which they knew would result in some serious injuries.


  10. Of course we’re heading in the wrong direction. I see it everyday at school. All the good teachers avoid the difficult kids, and even the difficult schools. There are tons of teachers who can’t afford to live on the salary they pay teachers here, so they move away. Plus, teachers from PJH come flooding over here every chance they get, and no matter how much money the government throw at us, it’s not going to fix it. We need a big reform, not the namby-panmby stuff they’re currently pushing.


  11. 3 quick points:
    1. Several of the places often cited as high performing have very strong, quality early childhood programs, serving both youngsters and their families. In 1985, the National Governors Association encouraged major expansion of high quality early childhood programs, esp for youngsters for low income families. Doing much more of that could have helped. Tucker does not mention this research based idea. Interesting. The Obama/Duncan administration has encouraged greater support for high quality early childhood programs, and has just announced another effort to encourage this.

    2. Minnesota has provided substantially more funds to the 3 school districts with the highest % of low income students. These three urban districts spend more than twice what the average districts spend per pupil. Some of it is spend well, some not. But we also have one of the nation’s highest achievement gaps between students of different races. So equalizing funding (or providing even more for places serving low income youngsters, isn’t enough.

    3. Tucker has relentless promoted the National Board for Teachers, and helped convince foundations and states to spend millions of dollars on this. But a variety of studies show most of the National Board folks are not working in the schools serving the most low income youngsters. The money spent on the National Board could have been spent more effectively. But somehow, this seems to have escaped the scrutiny (and venom) of some critics of what Obama/Duncan have promoted.


  12. A couple of quick comments.

    First, many of us in education for many years have been making points not dissimilar from what Tucker now advocates. What is interesting is that he seemed for much of the past decade plus to be on the other side. Glad he is finally grasping what was obvious.

    Second, while I agree absolutely that we are going in in the opposite direction of many so-called high-scoring nations, I have a problem with much of the rhetoric around international comparisons. For example, if we adjust for levels of poverty the US basically performs as well as any other nation. What falling back there has been has been, imho, a direct result of the kinds of educational policy being imposed on this nation through multiple iterations of ‘reform’ since “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, continuing on through Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and contained in the Blueprint put forth by the current administration (which at times seems almost clueless about education, except to follow in lockstep the nostrums pushed by the likes of Democrats for Education Reform, Teach for America, the Gates Foundation, etc.).

    Third – people seriously concerned about both education and equity have long advocated for different approaches, but could not get our voices heard. We have seen ideas good in theory – such as charters as originally proposed by the likes of Ray Budde and Al Shanker (who wound up disavowing his brainchild) be distorted by corporatization, being used for profiting by hedge funds, etc. It is frustrating that serious people are excluded from the conversation or if they offer criticism of favored approaches like Teach for America are subjected to well-financed attacks and political organization against them – one example would be how TFA and their alumni have gone after Linda Darling-Hammond, whose research has demonstrated that TFA is no magic solution – we even saw Wendy Kopp personally lobby Governor Schwarzenegger to keep Darling-Hammond off the California commission involved in teacher credentialing.

    All of these are part of the reason why so many in education have responded so positively to Diane Ravitch in the past year plus.

    It is also why the movement to Save Our Schools, organized from the ground up, is growing rapidly. I suggest those who want to know more go to to learn more about this national movement. Yes, we will have a conference and a march in DC at the end of July. But that will only be the start. And full disclosure – I am on the Executive Committee of the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action precisely because it may be the last best hope to save public education in this nation.

    If we are serious about education, we need to include the voices of parents, teacher educators, and teachers in the process. We cannot have a designing of national standards by panels that exclude the voices of teachers or their professional organizations like National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the International Reading Association while giving multiple seats at the table to think tanks, testing corporations, and so on.

    There are those in politics who oppose public education. They want to privatize and voucherize it. They have a theological approach and want to impose their theological vision upon the rest of us. Ultimately they do not believe in democracy or in public institutions.

    I oppose that approach with every fiber of my being. Which is why I not only continue to teach even as I have reached 65, but also remain active in educational policy, through writing and lobbying and speaking.


  13. Ken, there are well financed attacks from organizations like NEA, George Soros and the Ford Foundation on many of the things I’ve worked hard to promote for 40 years. Let’s be clear that there is a lof of money pushing various agendas. The National Board for Professional Teaching was pushed hard by certain Foundations, for example.
    In a recent note published in response to one of Merrow’s statements, I pointed out that the AFT has praised teacher involvement with the National Standards. No response from anyone to that.

    Why aren’t you challenging magnet schools that are allowed to screen out kids? Where’s the equity in that? One of the reasons vouchers were enacted for low income kids in Wisconsin is that the very liberal AFrican American Democrat state legislator Polly Williams was furious that kids in the neighborhood she represented could not get into the exclusive magnet school that was created in that neighborhood – admitting many youngsters from affluent suburbs. Where is your frustration with the thousands of quasi private”magnet” public schools that have been allowed to screen out kids with disabilities, and kids with low scores on standardized tests? Where is your equity anger about that?

    There are parents and educators all over the nation very unhappy with magnet schools, Ken. That’s one of the reasons the charter movement has spread so far. Do those parents and educators voices matter?

    Fortunately, to many state legislators, and to the last 4 Presidents, the answer is “yes.”


  14. John Merrow wrote, “I didn’t say that teachers believe in magic bullets. I said that the decision makers do, and the evidence supports that.” Having worked with Governors and legislators in more than 25 states since 1985, I haven’t seen any state legislators who believed any single strategy would solve all the problems.

    I have seen some educators assert that the achievement gap would be ended if we instituted early childhood education. I have seen some educators insist that what we really need is lots more money (period). Money can help, but I don’t think it will solve all the problems.

    So John, I’m interested in which state legislator or which governor or which member of Congress that you have encountered thinks there are one or two “magic bullets.”


    • Joe
      I am incline to pay attention to what people do, not what they say. Lots of Republicans have pushed one ‘solution’ such as vouchers, or charter schools, or more emphasis on basic skills or alternative certification or more testing. Some Democrats have pushed for small classes. The current administration has a lot of eggs in the basket marked ‘turnaround schools.’
      I have yet to see any political leaders argue and devote significant political capital for a national conversation about the purposes of schoolings or for some comprehensive strategy


      • We agree that it is important to watch what people do. In a number of states, legislators are proposing a mixture of changes proposed by former Gov Jeb Bush. Having heard him make the presentation as well as seen a number of these ideas proposed as a package in several states, I see this as the opposite of focusing only on one solution. Bush suggests the following as a “suite” of reforms
        * Extending quality early childhood education programs, and increasing family info about the programs
        * Expecting students to learn to read by end of 3rd grade – with extensive assistance to those who are not successful
        * Extensive professional development on ways to improve reading skills in early elementary students
        * Rating schools, a-f, using test scores and other measures
        * Increasing the number of charters
        * Providing public funds to private & parochial schools

        I don’t necessarily agree with each of these, but Bush has made it clear he sees these as a package. He supports the package by noting the progress that has come in Florida using these strategies.

        President Obama has proposed a vast array of changes, including a major expansion of health care. I’d have thought many people like John and Ken would like the idea of expanding health care coverage – I sure do. And I think healthier students are a big plus for society, their familes and schools.


  15. Am I the only one feeling very conflicted by this report and the issues it raises?

    On the one hand I am so happy that a report has come out showing that many of the boneheaded reforms the US has been implementing run contrary to what our “out performing” “international competitors” are doing. As a third grade teacher trying to teach well in these times of idiocy, having a condemning report is welcoming. But on the other hand……

    I cannot get all goody goody gumdrops over latest missal from the education reform front. After all, the argument seems to be thus far (sorry that I have not gotten all the way through the report) that these other countries are doing better on standardized tests than we are. Albeit the PISA is a very nice test, yet it is still just a standard test. How can I celebrate findings condemning the actions I abhor, but for the wrong reasons.

    I just do not agree with the goal – raising test scores. Raising test scores is a often the byproduct of being well educated, but it should not be the goal of education. I made a list of goals that I have for my students and for their education – I want them to be able to: produce and defend their own ideas, collaborate, research, innovate, investigate, create, reflect, be able to apply knowledge to new situations. I want them to be curious, open-minded, empathic, imaginative, tenacious, and honest. Oh, and I also want them to know a bunch of stuff.

    I pretty much feel that if you teach for that list, rather than the PISA list, or the SAT list, or the MCAS list, you end up with students who often do well on these tests as an after thought. It’s like when you change your life style to improve your health and you lose a lot of weight and everyone keeps complimenting you on how great you look and really the lost weight was a byproduct of another goal, a goal that perhaps the majority of the people would not really buy into.

    My guess is that while Japan and Singapore are not doing some of the goofball things we are doing in the name of the education reform, they are focused on a goal I probably could not get behind. However, Finland is always so amusing on this issue. As they are oooooed and ahhhed over for their scores, they seem somewhat embarrassed that the scores are the source of such acclaim. They always start talking about things such as “the whole child” and those squishy education goals I listed above that I have for my own students.

    So, can I be glad that some deforms got whacked on their heads with their own goals, yeah I am. But unless I am reading the likes of Mr. Kohl or Kohn, it is generally a lonely life to be an educator whose goals don’t seem to fit in this oh so quantitative age.


  16. “Goofball” is a great word to describe a lot of what’s going on, or it would be if there weren’t real damage done to kids by our relentless focus on test scores.
    PISA is a good test. If we lived by that, then ‘teaching to the test’ wouldn’t be an awful thing.

    We have what I call a ‘respect/expect’ problem. We do not respect children’s intelligence, nor do we expect enough from them.
    More about that in my new blog later this week.


  17. As a 15 year Math teacher, I have grumbled and bristled seemingly this entire past year as state after state has launched what seems nothing less than all out attacks on the teaching profession.

    My experience across four different schools, and now two different states, is that the vast majority of my teaching colleagues were dedicated, caring, and talented educators. It is also true that there have been teachers in every school that I have worked in who do not deserve these same labels. I am inclined to believe there are some less than stellar employees in just about every career group.

    But the Tucker report resonated with me and my own educational experiences. I did not leave college feeling prepared for what I experienced in my first years as a teacher. And while I did have an assigned mentor during that first year, we seldom interacted and that mentor was probably not in my room more than 2-3 times the entire year. Despite that, I was still “checked-off” at the end of the year as having successfully passed my intern year.

    It was nothing more than a hoop. We jumped through it as we were supposed to.

    I was not better for the experience and my students certainly did not gain a better teacher as a result.

    To me, this is the fundamental problem with US public education, and the part of Tucker’s report that I most connect with.

    Education in our country is not truly valued. Not by many parents, not by many students, and if they were completely honest, not at all by our political leaders and union leaders.

    The commitment to elevating the career of educator described in Tucker’s paper therefore appeals to me very strongly. You see, I personally take great pride in my career. I personally feel my job is not a second or third choice career, but a calling that I consider incredibly important and valuable to my community.

    How great it would be if the mindset of our entire country was the same.

    I have no particular problem with my student’s performance reflecting back on me. I don’t even have a particular problem with a test, like PISA, being used for international comparison. Perhaps unlike some others, I strongly believe that if I’ve taught my students well, if I’ve fostered a desire for understanding in them, and if we’ve found a way to successfully navigate the curriculum that I am responsible for, my students will be fine on whatever type of test you choose to throw at them.

    And no, I am no fan of testing. I simply realize that somewhere, someone will want to see what my students know and stack it up next to someone else’s students.

    I would love to see the changes take place that Tucker describes.

    I am also extremely doubtful that our country can ever be selfless enough to move in that direction.


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