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American Exceptionalism

By Robert Schwartz

One of the issue areas I've paid most attention to in the last few years is teacher policy, an area in which it is pretty clear that the U.S. has a lot to learn from other nations. It's also clear, unfortunately, that many American educators and policymakers simply don't believe the experience of other nations applies to us.

Why is that? When you cut through the rhetoric and the excuses, the underlying belief that explains our refusal to pay attention to what other countries do is that we are different. We're America, with such a unique history, culture, politics, governance system, etc. that nothing that works anywhere else could possibly apply here.

If Finland and Singapore draw their teachers from the top quartile of secondary school students, that's great for them, but of course we couldn't possibly do that. Their cultures must have a long history of deep respect for teachers, whereas we are the country of "those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

When I tell people the reason Finland has ten applicants for every teacher training slot is that the government made a conscious decision not so long ago to raise standards by moving teacher preparation from separate teacher training colleges (the counterparts of our old normal schools) into their universities and requiring all teachers to go through a rigorous five year program leading to a Master's degree, they say, "We couldn't do that. Our universities couldn't possibly meet the demand, and this would result in major teacher shortages."

When I point out that Teach for America has definitively demonstrated that highly talented applicants are attracted, not repelled, by a very competitive admissions process, the counter, of course, is that TFA only asks its recruits for a two-year commitment. The idea that we might try to figure out some way to combine the recruiting strategy of TFA with the training provided by our very strongest university-based preparation programs to create an entering teacher force that begins to resemble that of Finland or Singapore doesn't seem to be on anyone's policy screen. Why? Because we're different from those places, we're America.

Of course, culture and context matter, and you can't simply transplant policies that work in one country to another. But, why bother participating in international assessments of student learning if we are not going to make a serious attempt to study the policies and processes that seem to produce consistently better and more equitable results than we are able to get from our schools?

Robert B. Schwartz is the academic dean and Francis Keppel Professor of Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has played a variety of roles in education and government over the past four decades, including high school teacher and principal, foundation officer, and president of Achieve Inc. in Washington.

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