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A Stunning Report From the National Conference of State Legislatures

A new report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State, wastes no time in getting to the point.  "The bad news," it says in the very first sentence, "is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy. The U.S. workforce, widely acknowledged to be the best educated in the world half a century ago, is now among the least educated in the world...Pockets of improvement in a few districts or states is not enough to retain our country's global competitiveness."

You've heard observations like this from me for years, but this report was written by a study group of state legislators, most of them long-serving, from all over the country, equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, fire-breathing liberals and rock-hard conservatives.  They wrote it after two years of hard study together, reading through great stacks of materials, visiting other countries, travelling across the country to meet with one another and global experts, almost all of them attending every meeting.  The NCSL staff told me they had never seen state legislators work this hard on an assignment like this. 

At the end it was impossible to tell the Democrats from the Republicans.  However much they differ on other issues—and they dothey are united as one now on the urgent need to overhaul the schools of the United States.  And they have coalesced around a clear idea of how to do it, which is to learn as much as possible from the countries that have in ever-larger numbers been eating our lunch for years. 

Most reports of this sort are the end result of compromise after compromise, written in the kind of vague language that conceals more than it reveals.  Not this one.  It took real courage to produce this report.  Read only a little between the lines and you will find people who have served their states for many years saying to you, in effect, that we, like the whole country, have been on the wrong track for years, pursuing silver bullet solutions to our education challenges and getting nowhere, while other countries, once well behind us, are now far ahead.

They could have hidden behind a mountain of excusesreasons why the achievements of other countries are irrelevant here because we are exceptionalas so many others have, but they did not do that.  They explicitly rejected that approach after careful study of the issues.  They recognized that they could be taken to task for embracing silver bullet solutions themselves in the past, like the rest of the country. They knew that by rejecting the easy ways out they could easily be attacked for suggesting that other countries had succeeded where the United States has failed, but, as you will see from their report, they decided that too much is at stake for the usual sort of political behavior.  These state officials are the bedrock of the American political system and they rose to the occasion.  If you should happen to be looking for real patriots, this is where you will find them. This report, unlike so many others, is very well worth reading.

There are six big messages in this report:

  1. A big warning: the country's competitive position is in grave danger, compromised by an education system that is falling further and further behind the leaders, to the point that the American workforce is now among the least well educated in the industrialized world. 
  2. No state will be able to catch up with the global leaders without a clear vision for the kind of economy and education system it wants and it will get one only by conducting a big, very inclusive conversation involving all the major stakeholders designed to lead to a broad and deep consensus on a shared vision.
  3. The good news:  the coalition behind that consensus does not have to wonder how to greatly improve the performance of the state education system because there are more than 20 countries, most of them the size of American states, that now have education systems performing better than ours and we can catch up if we eat a little humble pie and decide to learn from them, benchmarking their systems and using what we learn to build a system uniquely designed to fit each state's own circumstances.
  4. The top performers got there not by finding the right silver bullet, but by building effective education systems, all the parts and pieces of which were designed to work in harmony with the others, each part supporting the whole.  Legislators need to devote a lot more attention to the effectiveness of their education systems taken as a whole.
  5. But getting the vision right, making sure the commitment to that vision is both broad and deep and agreeing on what the whole system ought to look like does not mean that the whole system can or should be put in place all at once.  No other country has done that.  The NCSL study group says, in effect, start somewhere and build out piece-by-piece, keeping the whole design in mind all the time.
  6. Build an organizational structure the coalition can use to stay on course through different administrations and even changes in party control.

With help from NCEE's Center on International Education Benchmarking, the NCSL study group worked hard to see if it could identify common threads in the strategies used by the top-performing countries.  Here is what they found:

  1. Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.
  2. A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed. Keys to building a world-class teaching corps include:
    1. Selective recruitment
    2. Rigorous preparation and licensure
    3. Thorough induction
    4. Career ladders or lattices
    5. Professional work environments
    6. High-quality professional school leaders
    7. Higher compensation
    8. World-class instructional systems
    9. A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.
    10. Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.

Stated at this level of abstraction, one can hear many educators saying, yes, this is what we do in my school or district.  But throughout, the study group report makes it clear that American schools typically fall far short of what the top performers do in each and every one of these areas and they point to the kinds of policies and practices that would be needed to bring an American state into the ranks of the top performers.

One might conclude that this is yet another assault on professional educators, but that is not the case at all.  The tone throughout is that of an urgent call to action.  The reader will search in vain for blame casting, for there is none.  This report was written by people who recognize that if anyone is to blame, we are all to blame. Instead of trying to assign responsibility for the past, we must now accept responsibility for the future. It is refreshingly hopeful and I urge you to read it.  You can find the report here.

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