In a November 10 Sputnik I wrote some cautionary thoughts about what we can and cannot learn from international comparisons to improve educational policies. My old friend Marc Tucker, in his December 20 blog called Top Performers, took me to task, saying that by suggesting we try out ideas from abroad in our own schools before adopting them wholesale, I was "looking for my keys where the light was better" rather than where they might actually be.
In my blog I was completely agreeing with Marc that we can learn a lot from other countries. I work part-time in England and am very familiar with education there and elsewhere in Europe. There is indeed much we can learn in other countries. In fact, we already are: the hot off the press Quality Counts report from Education Week found that "Education officials in 29 states reported that their agency uses international education comparisons to inform their reform strategies or identify 'best practices.'" Where I take issue with Marc is in his apparent belief that if we study what successful nations do, we can just plunk their policies down in our context and all will be well. Marc seems to think that international comparisons have proven that our main efforts need to be directed toward improving teacher quality. He might very well be right. I'd love to see teacher salaries doubled, teacher education dramatically improved, induction enhanced, and so on, and perhaps these policies would solve our problems by making teaching a more attractive profession, bringing higher-quality students into teaching, and providing excellent professional development and support to help existing and new teachers to be effective and to want to stay in the profession. Frankly, however, there isn't a U.S. educator or policy maker who didn't already know that these would be great ideas long before we ever heard of Finland.
But how do we cause all of these things to happen in our society, with our kids? Which of these policies are not only effective, but most cost-effective? Is it too much to ask that whatever ideas we glean from observing Finland or Singapore or Japan be tested in Minnesota or Massachusetts or Mississippi, so we can learn how they work here? And in the meantime, might we also increase use of programs and practices that have been proven to work in the U.S., and develop and evaluate more of them?
America's strength in every field, from medicine to agriculture to satellites, lies in its extraordinary capacity in research and development. This is true in education as much as in other areas; the products of U.S. educational R & D are much sought after in other countries. While other countries can give us good ideas and benchmarks to evaluate our students' performance, let's also build on our strengths.