Expecting 10th-graders to have the knowledge and skills that would allow them to succeed in the first year of community college, demanding more of university teacher preparation programs and pairing struggling schools with high-performing ones are among the lessons U.S. districts can learn from leading education systems across the world.
And school superintendents are the ones to design and implement such reforms in their districts, Marc Tucker, president and CEO emeritus of the National Center on Education and Economy (NCEE), said Tuesday during a live-streamed event focusing on his book, “Leading High-Performance School Systems: Lesson’s from the World’s Best.”
“The challenge is not to manage well the system you have,” he said. “It is to design a much better system and implement it where you are.”
Tucker presented data points that reinforce why NCEE’s research team has been examining other high-performing systems for guidance on how states and districts can approach redesign. In 10 countries, for example, the average student graduates at least two years earlier than the average U.S. high school student. And students in more than 30 countries outperform U.S. students in math, he said, adding that the U.S. system is still built for a “smokestack economy.”
Tucker highlighted three principles that guide education systems in countries such as Finland, Singapore and China:
Supporting families with young children
The first is addressing the child care, education, health and nutrition needs of young children — particularly those in poverty or experiencing violence. Tucker noted that in the U.S., low pay and minimal qualifications make it hard to attract people to the early-childhood education profession, a topic emphasized in last week’s State of Preschool report from the National Institute for Early Education Research.
While she wasn’t present at Tuesday’s event, Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teachers College, Columbia University, has led NCEE’s work on early childhood. She said in a webinar last year that dedication to the values of independence, localism and entrepreneurialism — and a belief that government only steps in when families can’t provide care or education for their young children — are major differences between the early education systems of other countries and the largely decentralized nature of programs and services in the U.S.
High standards for all
Once 10th-graders reach college-level standards, they could be given a choice of different high-quality diploma programs, such as International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, the Cambridge curriculum or a “demanding” career and technical education (CTE) program, Tucker said.
He used CTE as an example of how education leaders can make improvements without really changing the entire system. If districts add to their CTE programs, but don’t improve the academic performance of students in those programs, “they’ll be condemned to a curriculum for people who can barely read,” he said.
A surplus of high-quality teachers
District leaders, Tucker noted, often have “comfortable” relationships with their local university teacher preparation programs. But then they turn around and complain about the graduates being unprepared to educate the students in their classrooms. Superintendents, he said, can ask universities to raise their admission standards, to place teaching candidates in a variety of school settings for clinical practice and to focus on a specific curriculum.
“You are their customer,” he said to school leaders, “and if the customer goes away, they are in deep trouble.”
Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and now chair of the California State Board of Education, has led research on how other countries prepare, pay and support their teachers. During Tuesday’s event, she described, for example, Finland’s move to reduce the number of university teacher preparation programs from over 40 to 11 and to require candidates to have a strong research background as well as to have experience in “well-designed purposeful settings.”
She added that while teaching has been “declining as a profession” in the U.S., the teacher strikes, walkouts and rallies in multiple states are “giving birth across the country to a new conversation about the teaching profession.”
Internationally, Tucker added, teachers spend less time with students and more time working in teams and providing individual and small group support to students. In fact, providing more hours in school, after school and during the summer, he said, is how other countries address intervention for struggling students.
Darling-Hammond noted that the U.S. is known for being innovative and for attracting attention from other countries for specific programs or schools, but that the system is not organized to “scale up” those models and “apply them to all kids.”
She and Dan Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association, both pointed to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as progress toward allowing local systems the flexibility to push toward structures they see highlighted in NCEE’s research.
“We welcome Marc’s challenge and firmly believe that indeed it is the superintendent who is in a position to bring about the kind of transformation that we talk about,” Domenech said.
The event featured two superintendents who addressed challenges in their districts by looking at practices applied in other leading education systems around the world.
Sybil Knight-Burney, leader of the Harrisburg School District in Pennsylvania, was looking for a way to keep teachers from leaving for other districts where they could earn more money. She created a teacher leadership academy, and on the advice of a steering committee, she pays educators a stipend to attend professional development on Saturdays instead of hiring substitutes to replace them on a school day. The district has also added a master teacher position as part of its career ladder.
Confronting low scores among students in Algebra I, Superintendent Tom Washington of the Crawford Central School District, also in Pennsylvania, learned that roughly 75% of the district’s middle school teachers earned their certification by taking a test, which created a “problem where you have people who don’t have deep content knowledge,” he said. Instead of bringing in an outside professional development provider, he worked with the union to have “seasoned teachers” work with novice educators.
Politics in the way
Susan Fuhrman, past president of Teachers College and now a consultant working in countries such as Brazil, said U.S. politics stand in the way of implementing many of the structures viewed as models in other countries. Superintendents often attempt reforms that are more “symbolic.” “If you want to make a mark," she said, "you may suggest something that you know will be difficult to implement but you may not be there to see that.”
Fuhrman added that while states have the constitutional responsibility for education, state education agencies have lost many of their content and professional development experts and “are nothing like the ministries you see in other countries.”
“We didn’t make this up. This is what we actually see in the countries that get higher performance.”
President and CEO emeritus of the National Center on Education and Economy
In addition, Tucker said Americans whose children are doing well in the current education system tend to be the most resistant to changes. The message to them, he said, is that their children are not competing with less-advantaged peers in the U.S. but with better-educated graduates in other countries that are willing to work for half as much money.
He also addressed the issue of school finance. “You can’t much affect what the state gives you,” he said to school leaders, “but you can certainly affect the way you use the resources the state gives you.”
In top-performing countries, he said, schools have lower teacher-to-student ratios in schools serving students with greater needs. And they give teachers time to meet with parents, coordinate services by outside agencies and provide additional academic support to students.
“We didn’t make this up,” Tucker said. “This is what we actually see in the countries that get higher performance.”