Why American education pales—and fails—on the global stage

How to create a high-performance education system
By: and | Issue: June, 2019
May 13, 2019
Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

It’s no secret that the United States—once the leader in public education—has slipped well below a number of other countries in performance and outcomes.
The problem, says Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is that the U.S. doesn’t have an integrated system of education. In
Leading High-Performance School Systems (ASCD, 2019), Tucker says a high-performance system is composed of many subsystems, each designed with all other subsystems in mind. That’s not the way education policy is made in the U.S. “We live in a world of silver-bullet solutions, and our schools look like a mortuary of silver-bullet solutions—one piled on another in a great heap—except that, unlike in the mortuary, the dead are still alive.” The book profiles countries that have built successful systems, which are, ironically, based on a U.S. model that no longer exists.

You write that in the U.S., we don’t have a system per se, but rather a series of “random acts of intervention.”

Right. There’s a program to teach reading that was the result of two teachers going to a workshop five years ago. There’s a program for low-income kids that came from a mayor 10 years ago. There’s a technology-focused curriculum that some superintendent brought in two years ago. These are random acts of intervention. None of them match up. None of them go away. They just add up, layer after layer, in a conflicting mess.

Countries such as Singapore, Canada, Finland, China and so on outpace us in education. What’s their secret?

What you see in these other countries is very different. Most of them have education ministers; we do not. The education ministry, which basically operates the whole system, is very interested in innovation, and these leaders go all over the world looking for innovations—but they don’t just bring each one back helter-skelter. They ask, “How is this going to fit with what we’re already doing?” And they alter it so it will fit. They don’t introduce it in just one or two places. If it really works, it becomes part of the system and gets integrated, but only when it harmonizes with the rest of the system.

Is part of the difference that other countries are more homogenous—they share a common culture—whereas the U.S. has a diverse population and a variety of cultures?

Well, there are a lot of people who think that is true. But it is less true in all countries than you’d think. Canada, for example, which performs way above the United States, has a larger percentage of students who were born in some other country than is the case in the U.S. In parts of Canada, the immigration levels are off the chart.

In the U.S., principals are often chosen not because they’re good teachers, but because they’re good managers.

Australia has a level of diversity, as we think about it, second only to the United States. But Australia performs well above the United States. Outside of Greece, Australia even has the largest population of people from Greece in the world. Who knew?

I had no idea.

Australia is a country of immigrants, just as the U.S. is. And in many ways, so is Canada. People say, “Well, Marc, think of China; they’re all Chinese.” And I laugh because Mandarin is not a language that most Chinese know. There’s an enormous diversity of language and ethnicity in China.

Now, look at Singapore, which consistently has the highest level of performance in the world. It’s a country of nearly 6 million, which is the size of a typical state in the United States. When it began as a country around 1960, most of its people were illiterate; they were fighting each other in the streets. Some were from Indonesia, some were from Malaysia, some were from India and some were ethnic Chinese. They were anything but homogenous.

Europe, too, is changing rapidly. In Belgium, the levels of immigration have been very high. Germany has had very high levels of immigration since the 1970s.

So it’s just not the case that these other countries perform better because they’re less diverse than we are.

In the U.S., we have programs and resources directed to various groups—low income, special education and so on. Is it the same in other countries?

In other countries, you rarely find the kinds of categorical programs that we’ve got. In the United States, much of the aid that comes from the federal government is intended for specific groups of kids, is to be used in specific ways, and comes with a large panoply of rules and regulations.

What most people don’t realize is that the majority of employees in state departments of education are there to manage the federal programs. You’ve got a Title I office, a Title III office, a Title That office, and a Title the Other Thing office, a special education program and so on. And at each step, they add their own rules and regulations.

What that does is Balkanize the school. You don’t see this in the top-performing countries. I don’t know of any that have developed categorical programs the way the United States has.

What do other countries do instead?

They make it very clear that they expect all the kids to be learning at high levels. They typically provide more teachers in relation to the number of students, so more teachers for schools that enroll high numbers of kids from minority groups and low-income kids, for instance. In some countries, they actually put their best teachers in those schools. But in many countries, those schools get more teachers. In a number of countries, they provide more dollar resources, or dollar-equivalent resources, but they don’t do it with categorical programs.

What is often the case, in places such as China and Shanghai, is that the district identifies low-performing schools and high-performing principals. Then, they’ll provide an incentive to those principals to mentor and actually assume some responsibility for the principals in the low-performing schools.

Read: Why K12 education needs diverse teachers

The incentive is pretty straightforward: If you are an ambitious principal and you want to move up in the system, you can’t rise unless you have a record of providing effective help to principals in trouble—typically in schools serving low-income kids. The only people that you get in the central office are people who’ve been promoted because they have that kind of experience, and they’ve been successful at it. It’s a big difference.

Along the same lines, you write that in many countries, the principal or headmaster still teaches.

Right, and it does make a huge difference. In the U.S., schools are larger, and principals are often chosen not because they’re good teachers, but because they’re good managers. Then, these principals are told to go around and help teachers do better, but they don’t know how to do that—and the teachers recognize it.
If you were to set up a system like the kind they have in Shanghai, in which you have to demonstrate that you are a good teacher before you can climb the career ladder for school administrators, the teachers would know that the people supervising them were there because they had been very good teachers. It sets up a whole different relationship between the faculty and the principal.

Do you believe it’s possible, with our current education department, to create a coherent system?

I do. We’ve been training people and working with school districts for a long time. And once they hear what we’re doing, districts will seek us out and get affiliated with us. They tend to be run by superintendents who want a better future for themselves and their districts. Over the years, the people who joined us as principals have become superintendents, and the superintendents we’ve been training wind up in key positions in state departments of education, and so on.
This is the long view, but I believe we can “grow the system up,” and at the same time, we can work with states to see if we can “grow the current system down.” When that happens, I think you’re going to be really surprised at how much progress we can make.

Tim Goral is senior editor.