EdMedia Commons Archive

Thomas Friedman and ‘Surpassing Shanghai’ on Fixing Schools

Education, with its endless school board meetings and inevitable back-to-school stories, traditionally hasn’t been the most coveted beat in the newsroom. So when three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said a while back that if he were just starting out, he’d become an education reporter rather than national security scribe, it was a comment that resonated loudly in the EWA community. I got a chance to ask Friedman briefly what he meant by that statement before he spoke Tuesday at an event in Washington, D.C.“We live in an age when education is such a driver of economic growth, and economic growth is a driver of national security,” he said, succinctly capturing the urgency that fuels efforts to improve American schools.

Friedman—who co-wrote That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back with Michael Mandelbaum—joined National Center for Education and the Economy President Marc Tucker for a discussion of what ails the nation’s schools, as well as a book signing (Tucker edited the recently published Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems). Both men described a system flailing in a state of crisis and potentially exacerbating its circumstances even as it attempts to enact solutions.

“The U.S. is now in the grips of a reform agenda that has virtually nothing in common with the countries with the most successful education systems,” Tucker said. Bringing America’s educational performance up to the level of nations NCEE studied—such as Japan, Finland and Singapore—might require a radical rebuild rather than the options currently supported by school reform advocates and policymakers. “You can’t do that by squeezing the system we currently have in place,” Tucker said. “We have to have a different kind of system.”

Any such system reforms, of course, would have to address the disparities in academic performance of America’s students when assessed both domestically and internationally.  “We have to bring the bottom to the average so much faster and we have to bring our average to the global average so much faster,” Friedman said. “We have a dual education challenge right now, which makes the challenge so much bigger.”

Tucker offered three steps for improving the nation’s schools based on NCEE’s research:

  1. Rethink commitment to local control and local finance: In Surpassing Shanghai, Tucker notes that in the nations that outperform the United States, more financial resources are directed toward the schools in disadvantaged communities where in America the wealthiest neighborhoods also tend to have the most well-financed school systems.
  2. Improve teacher quality: In the nations with the top-performing schools, “they make certain that the teachers who are going to teach their kids are absolute masters of the subject they are going to teach,” Tucker said. Beyond the thorough knowledge of the discipline they teach, these instructors also master the craft of teaching, apprenticing with master teachers before they are employed full-time. In many of these nations, the salaries for novice teachers are comparable to those for beginning engineers, Tucker said. Tucker criticized the lack of these characteristics in the process that produces teachers in America. “We are in a vicious cycle with respect to teacher quality which is going to condemn us for years to teachers who are not capable of doing the job that needs to be done.”
  3. Give the state departments of education more power, making them comparable to the ministries of education in the nations with successful education systems. Because the size and population of many of the nations NCEE studied are more comparable to American states rather than the overall country and because states tend to have more control over education, states should assert authority over the goals and performance of their school systems, Tucker said. It’s worth noting however that when asked by moderator Luke Russert of NBC News if any state is close to getting school reform right, Tucker could not name one that was.

As every education reporter knows, none of these proposals would be easy to enact. But they do offer a compelling alternative route to the currently traveled avenues of school reform. What do you think? How these options compare to with currently favored tools such as charter schools, teacher-evaluation reform, and school turnaround? 

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.