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STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS: NCEE Report Outlines American Agenda for Education Reform Based on Highest-Performing Nations

“No nation can move the vast majority of students to the levels of intellectual capacity and creativity now demanded on a national scale unless that nation is recruiting most of its teachers from the group of young people who are now typically going into the non-feminized professions.”

After examining the policy agendas of the most successful countries, a new report from the Nation Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) argues that the strategies driving the best-performing education systems in the world are rarely found in the United States. Additionally, the report, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform, finds that strategies now most popular in the United States, such as reduced class size and increased spending on education, are absent from the nations with the most successful education systems. It notes that only the effort to develop internationally benchmarked standards and high-quality assessments can be found on the policy agendas of the highest-performing nations.

“In the late 1970s, Japan was eating the lunch of some of America’s greatest corporations,” said Marc Tucker, president and chief executive officer of NCEE and author of the report. “Those that survived figured out how they were doing it and did it even better. The most effective way to greatly improve student performance in the United States is to figure out how the countries with top student performance are doing it, build on their achievements, and then, by building on our unique strengths, figure out how to do it even better.”

The report notes that the United States was “among the most eager benchmarkers” in the world a century ago. It borrowed the best ideas in steelmaking, industrial chemicals, and education from the top-performing nations and rode those innovations to the most rapid growth the economy had ever seen. But after World War II, when the United States appeared to “reign supreme” in both the industrial and educational arenas, it “came to the conclusion” that it had little to learn from anyone. As the years went by, the report argues, country after country caught up and surpassed the United States “more or less across the board in precollege education.”

Using Shanghai, Japan, Finland, Singapore, and Canada as models, the report identifies two “big developments” that necessitated fundamental changes in the design of education systems. The first, which the report calls the “trajectory of global economic development,” states that successful nations have abandoned the idea that education systems can reach their goals by “sorting students, giving only some students intellectually demanding curricula, by recruiting only a few teachers who are themselves educated to high levels, and by directing funding toward the easiest to educate and denying it to those hardest to educate.”

The second development has to do with the kinds of people needed to teach children in the current stage of global economic development.

“No nation can move the vast majority of students to the levels of intellectual capacity and creativity now demanded on a national scale unless that nation is recruiting most of its teachers from the group of young people who are now typically going into the non-feminized professions,” the report reads. “Recruiting from that pool requires a nation not just to offer competitive compensation but also to offer the same status in the society that the non-feminized occupations offer, the same quality of professional training, and the same conditions of work in the workplace.”

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants acknowledges that there are “useful roles” that the federal government can play in dramatically improving the nation’s schools, but stresses that the main players must be state governments. It offers the following recommendations for states:

  • Build strategies for improving student performance on the continuing study of strategies employed by top‐performing countries.
  • Expand the work begun on the common core state standards to the rest of the core curriculum, and create curriculum frameworks that specify topics to be taught in the core subjects, grade by grade.
  • Develop a world‐class teaching force by greatly raising entry standards for teacher education programs, and by moving teacher training from low-status higher education institutions to research universities.
  • Move away from local control of school finance and toward state adoption of responsibility for financing schools.
  • Abandon the old industrial model of school and district management and move toward modern methods of managing professionals.
  • Spend education budgets differently by spending less on fancy school buildings, glossy textbooks, intramural sports, and district administration, and by spending more on teachers and the most disadvantaged students.
  • Make sure all elements of the education system are coherent and aligned.

The report envisions the federal government taking on a role to “provide assistance” to states that would like to implement an agenda containing the recommendations listed above but lack the resources necessary to do so. It notes that that Obama administration has already moved in this direction through the creation of the Race to the Top program, which encourages the kind of
“comprehensive and coherent planning” advocated in the report, as well as the decision to use Race to the Top funds to support the development of tests matched to the common core state standards. It also points out that President Obama has proposed several initiatives on teacher quality that are consistent with strategies other nations have adopted.

For future action, the paper recommends that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind, include a section that would create a competition among states for funds that would be used to implement the agenda described in the report.


NCEE released the report at a May 24 event featuring Tucker; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; John Merrow, education correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Linda Darling-Hammond, professor at the Stanford University School of Education; and several other representatives from K–12 and postsecondary education, education policy, and state legislature arenas. To watch video from the event, click on the image to the right.

Download the complete report at .

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