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Book Review: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

In Marc S. Tucker’s report for the National Center on Education and the Economy, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform, he seeks to answer the question: “What would education policies and practices of the United States be if they were based on the policies and practices of the countries that now lead the world in student performance?” The leading countries—Finland, Singapore, Japan, Shanghai, China, and Canada—are those whose students score highest on the OECD’s PISA exams in Math, Reading, and Science.

What makes Tucker’s report a different take on the old refrain that American students are not as smart as those in other industrialized countries is that unlike many others, he does not blame the American student’s consumption of rock n’ roll and MTV as the culprits for poor performance. Rather, he argues that the American education system (primarily at the state government level) should work on developing a world-class teaching force, moving towards implementation of weighted student funding, creating world-class instructional systems and gateways for students with varied long-term goals (either moving on to further their academic careers in universities and colleges or those entering the workforce), and, most importantly, making sure systems are coherent and aligned. Tucker believes that implementing these changes that other top-performing countries already have in place will help America effectively produce high-performing students and compete on a global scale.

The leading countries did not achieve success overnight, nor have they remained stagnant in the development of their systems. Tucker recounts how Finland is in the process of making its curriculum standards more flexible so teachers have more autonomy in dealing with different student needs. Some countries benchmark other countries’ education systems for years, and then import the processes that best meet their countries’ education needs. They learn from other countries because, as Tucker argues, their position in the global marketplace demands it. The countries whose people are well-prepared with the skills needed for new economies that will prevail in the 21st century.

As an ERS consultant, it’s hard to find fault with Tucker’s proposals. We believe that education reform in America needs to be addressed as a whole integrated system rather than in piecemeal fixes; we believe the teaching job is so critical to student performance and success that those who enter it should be well-qualified, supported, rewarded, and promoted as in any other professional job; and, we believe that equity in student funding should be based on students’ needs (socioeconomic status, disabilities, performance, etc.).

Tucker also mentions that tradeoffs will be necessary to achieve like the high-performing countries, which resonates well with my ERS-infused soul. In an increasingly resource-limited world, he contends that state education budgets have to be deployed in ways that achieve the highest level of productivity. States must do more with what they have now so that whether or not they get additional funding, our students can still achieve great things.

I like Tucker’s description of how the countries accomplish each principle in their own way. As an example, regarding the need to support new teachers with professional development, he recounts how Shanghai, China has novice teachers apprentice for a year with a designated experienced teacher versus how Finland uses an “extra year” of training to help teachers-to-be hone the softer skills of classroom management and identifying students with higher needs.

What I wished his report focused more on (and maybe he will in his forthcoming book) is how these countries deal with their more challenging schools and students. He acknowledges in passing that these countries have struggling schools they support, but I wished he talked more about how they support those schools because struggling schools are the cause of most sleepless nights for American educators.

What is often challenging about working in education reform in America is finding examples of effective system-level reforms. There are pockets of individual schools and districts that are doing great things, but finding great things happening at a system level is a challenge. Tucker’s report makes clear that what is necessary for reformation is possible as long as American education systems at the state level take on the challenges most crucial for them and are committed for the long haul. Reform does not happen in 2-3 years, but rather requires continuous dedication ensuring that all American students are competitive with their world counterparts.

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