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Topic: [ncsm-members] U.S. vs. the world in education reform
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] U.S. vs. the world in education reform
Posted: May 3, 2012 2:43 PM
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From The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thursday, April 26, 2012, p. A 29.

U.S. vs. the world in education reform

By Christopher Moraff

Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the nation's most
expansive school voucher program into law. Since the GOP sweep of
statehouses in 2010, similar measures have been introduced by the
legislatures of more than 30 states - including Pennsylvania, where a
bipartisan school voucher bill was defeated in the House in December.

Few doubt that there is a crisis in America's public schools. But
focusing so much attention on where money is spent - instead of how -
oversimplifies a complex problem.

Real reform will require replacing our top-down system focused on
arbitrary benchmarks and administrative minutiae with one that places
a highly skilled class of teachers at the vanguard. We know this
because it's a long-standing recipe for success in the countries that
consistently out-educate us.

A stubborn faith in American exceptionalism - and in the ability of
money to solve every problem - has left us mired in industrial-age
education policy. Meanwhile, countries such as Estonia, Slovenia,
Singapore, and China have bounded ahead. If U.S. officials took
notice, they chose to remain silent.

Fortunately, that's beginning to change. In 2010, at the behest of
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development released a study detailing the
strategies of the countries that ranked highest in its educational
assessments. Last fall, the National Center on Education and the
Economy updated the findings to develop a series of recommendations
for U.S. policymakers.

A glance reveals a handful of tried-and-true strategies, most
diametrically opposed to America's. They include diverting resources
to students who need them most, putting less emphasis on class sizes
and more on teacher autonomy, and keeping standardized testing to a

Teachers first

Without exception, the dominant ingredient is effective teachers. But
unlike in the United States, where the emphasis is on the back end -
finding ways to weed out underperforming teachers - the world's
leading systems are more concerned with getting it right up front, by
employing stringent vetting and hiring only the best and brightest

According to McKinsey & Co., nearly half of America's K-12 teachers
come from the bottom third of their college classes. In high-poverty
urban areas like Philadelphia, just 14 percent come from the top of
their classes. By contrast, Finland, the world leader in education,
requires all its teachers to have master's degrees and accepts just
10 percent of the college graduates who apply for teacher training.

Replicating this here would require raising the social and
professional status of teachers. Yes, part of that would be paying
them more - but not much more. It means giving teachers income parity
with other professions. In America, a starting teacher earns, on
average, the same as a fast-food restaurant manager, or $10,000 to
$15,000 a year less than other professionals with comparable levels
of education, such as accountants, programmers, and nurses.

State, not local

Make no mistake, we have the money. We currently shell out more for
education than any country except Switzerland, nearly $150,000 per
student over a 13-year school career. But only 50 to 60 percent finds
its way to the classroom. Spending a higher proportion of education
dollars on students and teachers would need to be a component of any
comprehensive reform.

Better-trained educators would pay for themselves if given the
freedom to rely less on administrators and more on each other.
According to Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on
Education and the Economy, this is standard procedure in
high-performing countries, where teachers are part of a highly
collaborative, professional workforce that is encouraged to diagnose
problems and find solutions.

"What's happening in countries like Finland, and it's not alone, is
that they are giving more and more discretion to teachers," Tucker
told me. "But they feel they can do that because they have
better-educated teachers. ... They have created a set of policies
that are producing teachers they can trust, while here in the U.S.,
we are basically pursuing a set of policies that are designed for
teachers we don't trust."

To nurture such reforms here, states would have to play a much bigger
role in education. Direct funding of K-12 education would have to be
shifted from the local to the state level to eliminate disparities
between rich and poor communities. According to Tucker's group, not a
single high-performing country funds its schools locally.

At the same time, administrative control should be taken away from
Washington, where it has degenerated from a noble experiment in equal
opportunity and national excellence into a preoccupation with
performance metrics.

The goal - national standards administered by states - is not only
attainable; it's being modeled under the Common Core State Standards
Initiative. Established in 2009 by the National Governors
Association, the standards are slated for full implementation in
2014-15, with 45 states pledging to use them for most of their

Reversing the decline of American public education won't be easy. But
the good news is that there are proven solutions at hand. Our future
as a nation might depend on putting partisanship aside and adopting
what's already working elsewhere in the world.
Christopher Moraff is a contributing writer for the Philadelphia
Tribune and In These Times, where he serves on the board of editors.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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