Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, DC and the editor of the new book, Surpassing Shanghai, joins us to talk about what the world’s best education systems look like and how they compare with the U.S. The top education systems in the world – Shanghai in China, Singapore, Japan, Finland and Ontario, Canada – don’t use any of the methods that are widespread in the U.S. such as high-stakes testing, charter schools, or evaluating teachers based on test scores, yet they consistently score at the top of the international exams. What can we learn from these countries and can their methods work here? Though few educators or policy makers know it, most of the ideas that define our education system today and made it so successful in the last century, were, in fact, borrowed from European countries. As Marc Tucker explains in this interview, it’s time we returned to what made the U.S. successful – taking what works best elsewhere and incorporating those ideas into our own education system.
Q: So let’s start off by talking about borrowing from the success of other countries’ education models. Now in the 20th century, the U.S. frequently took ideas and models from other countries, both in industry and in education. And not coincidentally, it was the time of the most rapid growth in the American economy. Can you give us a bit of the history?
Marc Tucker: There is a bit of an irony here because there are so many Americans now, educators and others, who offer many reasons why the experience of other countries is irrelevant to the United States, but what I presume most of them don’t know, is that many of the principle features of our education system, were actually borrowed about 100 years ago from other countries. The idea of the research university was borrowed from Germany, as was the earlier Prussian idea of a free education system for all citizens. The idea of both technical and vocational education, in the format which we actually implemented it early in this century, was borrowed from the Scots, as was the idea of the liberal arts college, which was very much a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. And there are many other features of our current system that owe their origins to other countries. But what I think happened was, after the Second World War, when the United States was really the only major industrial power left standing, our education system was producing what was, by consensus, the most highly educated work force in the world, and we became very proud of our accomplishments and really decided, I think, that we didn’t need to pay attention anymore to what other countries were doing. But since then, many other countries have actually overtaken us. I think it’s time once again for us to pay attention to the strategies that they are using so that we can not only catch up to them, but do even better than that.
Q: Let’s get into some of the specifics about what the most successful countries are doing in education. Let’s start with benchmarking. What does that really mean? You refer to aggressive international benchmarking – how do to the top countries use it?
Marc Tucker: I think many Americans in education think that what benchmarking is, is simply understanding, having some metrics by which to measure which countries are doing best. And that is certainly part of it. It’s really important to know what your competitors are doing, especially if they are doing better than you are – to know how well they are doing and how much better they are doing – but that’s really only the beginning of what benchmarking is really all about.
The term came into use in the late 1970′s when many of your listeners will remember that a number of companies in Japan, many of whom most Americans had never heard of, were coming out with products that were of higher quality than the comparable American products and sold at a much lower cost. And as a result, a number of American companies went out of business. Those that didn’t, indulged in what I refer to as “aggressive industrial benchmarking.” They sent teams of engineers over to Japan to take a look at how the Japanese companies were doing it, and they looked under every corner and every bed. They did very thorough investigations of the strategies that their competitors were using and they wouldn’t just try to find the best company and imitate it, what they did was visit many companies that were better in particular things than American firms were. They would put together the best of what they found across many companies, and they would add to it things that were distinctly American with their own ideas in order to produce something which was not an imitation of anything they had seen, but which profited from what they had learned from their competitors to build something even better than what their competitors were doing. That’s what I mean by industrial benchmarking, and aggressive industrial benchmarking is simply doing that with a lot of energy and skill.
One of the things that American companies learned about this process was it was never done; the companies that you look at never stand still. In fact, it’s often the case that when you visit companies that are doing better than you are, or in our case, countries that are educating their kids to a higher standard, they have lots of complaints about their own education system; things that they think are not going right that they want to fix. So they’re trying to get better all the time, and you have to keep going back and what we found was, those countries that are out-performing us have been very aggressive benchmarkers. They have worked hard to understand what their competitors around the world were doing, and they have taken what they could from them to build something that is uniquely their own, but which profits from what is learned from their best competitors.
Q: Can you talk about the major difference between teaching in this country and in the best-performing countries?
Marc Tucker: Sure, and this is surely one of the most important things we’ve learned from our work. What we see in the top performers around the world is major attention to this issue of teacher quality and it comes about in the following way. Most of these countries at one time or another, had a kind of an education profile that looks a lot like ours over the last 100 years – that is, they educated a small, elite for people in managerial and professional positions, they educated a comparable number below that for people in technical positions below professional, and a very large fraction or a substantial majority of the population, up to an eighth grade level of literacy. And for most of these countries, for decades on end, that met their economic needs pretty well and provided people with a pretty good living. But what’s happened in the last few decades, as the global economy has integrated, and you have different countries with very different pay scales, if you will, competing with each other, is that some countries find that they are priced out of the world labor market unless they can do something very different from what I just described – that is unless they can educate virtually everybody up to the same standard that they used to be educating only an elite group. That is not a minor change. That is a major transformation in the purpose of an education system, which has to be accompanied by a major change in the design of the education system. You see that each one of these top ten countries has gone through that kind of process.
As they have done that, what they have realized is they can’t do it unless they are recruiting their teachers from people who could otherwise be engineers, architects, doctors, attorneys, accountants and so on – that is, unless they really had the opportunity to choose high status professional careers – and that has made them think really deeply about how they recruit, compensate, train, educate and support their teaching force. The result in top ten countries for the most part that we have found is the following: they have followed a similar pattern, never the same, but a similar pattern and it works like this: in most of these countries, we have seen them, over time, greatly raise the standards for entering their teacher institutions, so that typically in the top ten countries, the ratio of applicants to acceptances in their teacher colleges are now on the order of 6:1, 8:1 and some countries, even 10:1, which essentially means that they have gotten to the point where it is as hard to get into a teachers college as it is to get into the professional schools for the top professions. In order to do that, they’ve had to raise starting salaries for teachers to the same level typically as the starting salaries for beginning engineers. It doesn’t stop there, because they are able to recruit top students this way, they have moved from recruiting their teachers from the bottom third of their high school graduates, to the top third, or an even higher fraction of their high school graduates, sometimes much higher. Because they are able to do that, they can then insist that these students get a really deep and sound education in the subjects they are going to teach. They don’t just insist that they master their subject they are going to teach, they also insist that they master their craft, so it’s typically the case in these countries that they insist that their prospective teachers take at least a year to learn how to teach in school. It is typically the case that in addition to that, they require that their newly hired teachers spend a year under the close supervision of a master teacher – a defined position in these systems. So that they do that, it is often the case that they release their master teachers from any other teaching duties for a period of time so that they can attend only to mentoring and instructing new teachers. It is so important to them that they learn how to teach well before they are given an assignment as a full time teacher.
In many of these countries, one does not get to be a regular teacher, if you will (whatever that means in that particular country), until two or three years have gone by, beyond the time of when they were first hired. In many of these countries there is a form of career ladder for teachers, one typically leading towards an administrative career, another leading to a lifetime career as a teacher with more and more responsibility and typically that culminates in a role – they call it different things in different countries – of master teacher. And in that role, teachers often do research, they do curriculum development, they do demonstration teaching, and teachers who get to that level of their career ladder are very widely celebrated within their profession and beyond. Lastly, in many of these countries, they have moved the function of teacher education from third tier fairly low status teacher education institutions into their research universities. That makes it easier to attract into teaching people who could otherwise be doctors and lawyers and architects and engineers; it makes it easier to attract first-rate faculty into the preparation of teachers and other education professionals; it makes it easier to teach teachers good research skills and to provide them access to cutting edge research. All of that happens when you move teacher education into the university.
Very importantly, what you find in those societies that have done what I have described, is a much greater tendency for people to enter teaching young, right out of college and to remain a teacher until the end of their career. They have very low attrition rates. Now let me quickly contrast what I have just described with the United States. In the United States, the situation is roughly the opposite on every one of those counts.
Q: It seems that most of our schools are caught in a “teach to the test” mode, where kids don’t really develop the thinking skills they need to compete in the 21st century global economy. What are other countries doing that we don’t do in terms of testing?
Marc Tucker: In the United States, we really have quite different testing traditions. We have a testing tradition for measuring kids’ basic skills, which in a way, matches our low cost teacher policy. It’s a low cost testing policy, and it’s built around computer-scored, multiple-choice tests, and when you’re trying to get a rough handle on kids’ basic skills, it is a perfectly decent strategy for doing that. But if you are among the countries that are trying to be the most formable competitors, than your aim is to go way beyond basic skills. It’s not a good strategy and what you find in most of the countries that are top performers, is a very different style of testing.
First of all it’s an examination. Technically, the difference between a test and an examination – an examination is testing what kids know in a particular curriculum and a test is designed to find out what kids know without reference to a particular curriculum. In the United States, we test. Most of these other countries examine, and they rarely use computer-based multiple-choice test to do it. The reason they don’t do that is because they are interested in higher order skills, the kind that is very hard to test with multiple choice computer based tests. It’s much more expensive, obviously, because you have to use humans to score the kinds of tests that I’m describing,. They are typically in essay form, some of them short answers, some of them medium answers, some of them long essays, as part of the tests. They often include in these other countries, especially at higher grade levels, assessments of extended pieces of work that students do that cannot be tested in a timed test. That too is expensive, because those scores have to be monitored by people that are not in the classroom and are often quite remote from the school. All those countries think that it is worthwhile to have a much more extensive examination system, as I say, because they are interested in examining things that they don’t believe can be adequately examined with computer-scored tests. To me, this is very important.
There are two problems with the way we are going at this [in the U.S.]. One of them is what you’re able to measure on a computer-based multiple-choice test. The other is the form of testing itself, which drives what is taught. In a system that uses our form of tests, teachers are strongly tempted to take short cuts – that is to say, to anticipate the exact form of question that would be on the test and to teach students to produce answers in that form of question without really understanding the subject matter. So it becomes possible to get pretty good scores on your test without really knowing very much about the subject, and in particular, without having mastered the conceptual basis of the subject, which is where true understanding comes from, and that is very dangerous because the kinds of skills that are going to be in demand are the kinds of skills that require conceptual understanding of the subject that students are studying and the ability to analyze pretty deeply and to synthesize material. These are hard things to test when you have multiple-choice tests. So the form of testing drives the enacted curriculum in the school in a way that is quite profound. To me, these are important differences in national assessment policies.
Q: The Common Core seems to certainly be a step in the right direction, at least in terms of math and English. Do you see it as a positive development for the U.S.?
Marc Tucker: I think it is. I think it is a big step in the right direction. As I was saying earlier, you find in the countries that are doing best that they have various forms of a national instructional system and what I mean by that is that is they have national goals, they have translated those goals into a set of subjects they think ought to be taught in schools; they have decided about how much time it ought to take to teach those subjects, meaning how much time is left to do other things. They have often developed a syllabi for courses in those subjects, especially at the high school level, they have developed a curriculum framework, like the kind I was describing earlier, so it is clear what topics will be taught in each of those subjects at each grade level. That means that they have textbooks and other instructional materials which are key to the curriculum framework and therefore are designed to be useful to teachers in the framework that they are required to teach in in school. They have derived from the curriculum that they have defined examinations, the purpose of which is to find out whether the kids have mastered the curriculum that, as a country, they have decided they want taught – and no surprise, when they teach their teachers in their schools of education what they are teaching them to do, is to teach the national curriculum. So it’s a highly integrated, coherent instructional system. Now these are countries that are treating their teachers like professionals, so they give them a lot of leeway in deciding how to teach that curriculum and they do not provide lessons plans; that’s not what it is about. But they do provide a very strong framework of a kind that I’ve just described.
So, your question was about the Common Core standards, and what we’ve done, we as a country have done, with the Common Core state standards is to begin the process that I’m just describing, focusing on two subjects, English and mathematics, and we have taken with respect to those two subjects, some of the steps, but by no means all of the steps, that I was just describing. So, whereas in most of these other countries, they base their exams on a curriculum, in this country we are basing our assessments on a set of standards, but not on an explicit curriculum. This is somewhat problematic. I understand all the reasons for it, but it is not quite as powerful as these countries have done. But mainly, it’s a question as to what subjects we are applying these procedures. We’re just starting out in math and English, and these other countries, they have done something like what I was describing in their native language, other languages, mathematics, a range of sciences, history and the arts, and so on right across the curriculum. So I view the Common Core state standards as a good start, but there is a long way to go to match the achievement of the countries that are outpacing us.
Q: Okay, let’s turn our attention to technology, which is obviously a big strength in this country. For example, the Khan Academy method using online instructional videos to teach math offers a lot of opportunity, exposing all kids to great teaching they might not otherwise get. Is it possible that we can surmount some of the challenges we face in our education system by thinking outside the box and not necessarily copying what our competitors do?
Marc Tucker: I think what Salman Khan has done is remarkable and very important. I think he would probably be the first to say what he has done is not a substitute for good teaching or good teachers. In fact, the way he is planning to roll out his system, he wants to have kids actually study his lectures at home and have them come into school for discussions that are lead by teachers, which I think is a brilliant idea. It makes lots of sense to me, but it assumes that the teachers really know the subject, and are able to diagnose kids that are not getting it and help them get it – which is what the problem has always been. I think I agree with what I take to be under your question, that is, I think we have skills in this country in technology and the use of technology that could be very important in coming up with original and good ideas about how to redesign the education experience for kids to make them fully competitive in a global economy. But what worries me right now is that I see many people seizing on technology as a way to solve our budget problems in education. I think that is going to lead us towards solutions which are not going to improve the quality of education at all. It is simply going to reduce the cost. I think we need to be very wary of that. I think there are no shortcuts to having good teachers for our kids. If you accept that as a proposition, then I think there is a lot that technology can do to improve our kids’ education.
It is, by the way, true that despite the fact that there are many countries ahead of us in an international comparative test, that people still come from all over the world to visit American schools, including from those countries that are beating the pants off of us. And the reason they are coming here is because you can find a great example of almost anything somewhere in the United States in our education system. We’ve always done that. The glory and the bane of our education system is its decentralization; it’s a glory because it produces enormous variation. It’s a bane because it means that we never capitalize on what we do well, and so many kids get an inferior education, because, in effect, we don’t systematize what works. But the fact is, you can find examples, great examples, of truly interesting and powerful educational ideas in many parts of this country and that’s a great asset. If we could figure out how to harness it in a system that works, which is what we don’t have, we’d have something better than anybody else in the world.