An analysis of Peter Tucker’s article concluding that pretty much everything the US is currently doing to ‘Deform’ its educational system is going on the wrong track. What we are trying to do is utterly contrary to what every single other high-scoring nation has done to improve their educational system, and is bound to make things even worse. This article is by Michael Martin.
The problem is that his “report” is basically polemic with no reference to research or reality. Still he looks at what occurred in several top scoring nations and compares it with what is happening in the U.S. and is fairly blatant in saying what the U.S. is doing is crazy.
Toward the end of his “report” Tucker proclaims “It turns out that neither the researchers whose work is reported on in this paper nor the analysts of the OECD PISA data have found any evidence that any country that leads the world’s education performance league tables has gotten there by implementing any of the major agenda items that dominate the education reform agenda in the United States. We include in this list the use of market mechanismssuch as charter schools and vouchers, the identification and support of education entrepreneurs to disrupt the system, and the use of student performance data on standardized tests to identify teachers and principals who are then rewarded on that basis for the value they add to a student’s education or who are punished because they fail to do so.”
Even closer to the end Tucker concedes “The government of Ontario did not predicate their reform program on replacing its current teacher workforce with a new workforce. They did not think they needed to. They asked themselves how they could get much better results from the workforce already in place. The answer they came up with was to make peace with the teachers unions that had been demonized by the previous administration and with the teachers that had been so badly demoralized and they invited them to join them in thinking through a reform program that would improve student performance.”
While describing ventures taken by countries such as Singapore, Shanghai, Finland, Canada, and Japan he interjects “It is important to point out that the United States has, in this realm, something that these other countries do not have, and it is not entirely clear that it is a good thing. The idea of grade-by-grade national testing has no takers in the top-performing countries.”
Tucker then notes “The federal government now requires tests in English and mathematics at many grade levels and has tied important consequences to student performance on those tests, thus heavily biasing the curriculum toward the teaching of these subjects and away from the teaching of other subjects in the curriculum that these other countries view as critical.”
He describes the Common Core program as mostly irrelevant and states “The two consortia are betting heavily on the ability of computer-scored tests to measure the more complex skills and the creativity and capacity for innovation on which the future of our economy is likely to depend. No country that is currently out-performing the United States is doing that or is even considering doing that, because they are deeply skeptical that computer-scored tests or examinations can adequately measure the acquisition of the skills and knowledge they are most interested in.”
Tucker focuses a lot of attention on the poor working conditions and the low status of teachers in the U.S. compared to these other countries, “At the International Summit on the Teaching Profession convened by Secretary Duncan in New York City in March 2011, the Minister of Education of Singapore offered the observation that the goal of compensation policy ought to be to ‘take compensation off the table’ as a consideration when able young people are making career decisions. There was wide agreement on that point among the ministers of the other top-performing countries around the table.”
Tucker essentially dismisses the Teach For America program and harps on the practice in the U.S. of not requiring teachers to have a good background in the subject they teach. He suggests “There is no clearer sign of society’s lack of respect for teachers and teaching than its view that, in the end, what really matters is having a warm body in front of their children, irrespective of that person’s qualifications to teach. The best performing nations do not do this.” Noting later “We behave as if we believe that only a few weeks of training is needed to do what they have to do, a sure sign that we do not believe teaching is a profession at all.”
Tucker seems to understand that teaching involves more than just spewing information. He notes “The Japanese use an approach to instruction that can reasonably be described as whole
class instruction or large group instruction but is definitely not lecturing.” And later “Finland, on the other hand, has been pressing hard in recent years toward a teaching and learning style in which the student takes increasing responsibility for the learning process.”
Tucker describes the U.S. system as stuck in the old sorting model and suggests that if we expect ALL students to reach some level of excellence: “As we have already noted, this means that financial resources are allocated so that students who need more help are allocated more financial resources so they can get that help.”
Tucker repeatedly points to the reduction of teacher oversight in these excelling countries and the importance of respecting the professionalism of teachers who have been trained to exercise this authority. Tucker says many of the things about professional development and collaborative teaching that I have suggested on EDDRA2.
He notes: “In Japanese schools, the faculty work together to develop new courses or redesign existing courses to make them more engaging. Once developed, that course is demonstrated by one of the teachers and critiqued by the others and revised until the faculty is happy with it. Then a particularly capable teacher will demonstrate it for others and critique their practice when they in turn teach it. Throughout, the development process calls on the latest research. Teachers who get very good at leading this work are often called on to demonstrate their lessons to other schools and even to teachers in other districts and provinces. In this way, instructional development and professional development are merged and professional development becomes an integral part of the process of improving instruction in the school, informed by the latest and best research. In fact, Japanese teachers are provided with research skills in their pre-service training, so that this local, teacher-led development process is supported by the kind of research skills needed by teachers to make sophisticated judgments about the effectiveness of their local development work. In the United States, teachers are generally the objects of research rather than participants in the research process itself. The topics for professional development are often chosen by administrators in the central office rather than by teachers seeking to improve their own practice on terms of their choosing. Because the topics chosen for professional development are typically not the topics the teachers would have chosen, they often perceive the professional development they get as not particularly helpful.”
He recognizes that the U.S. system has been deformed by the accountability imposed on it, stating “Teachers who teach complex skills to their students that are not measured on the standardized test they must give are sometimes penalized because they are not sticking to the schedule for teaching much lower basic skills. These are all examples ofperverse incentives, that is, positive incentives for lowering, not raising, achievement. Our education system is rife with such perverse incentives.”
Tucker also echo what I have written here in EDDRA2 several times about the structure of education being the primary problem. Tucker states that the U.S. is always coming up with new programs that rarely accomplish anything and concludes “The one thing that could have a very large effect-the design of the system itself-is no one’s responsibility.”
I hesitate to recommend the essay because of its polemic nature but I was impressed that Tucker was not the standard idiot that seems to be a fundamental requirement of the Broad/Gates/Duncan groups. He presents a list of recommendations that he calls an “agenda for individual states” that struck me as being somewhat rational. Having observed the totally insane litany of “reforms” over that past few decades that were totally divorced from the reality of schools, it was somewhat shocking to read something rational. It is largely a rational approach to upgrading the status quo, one can find much to argue with but that is what I found most shocking: it is rational enough to argue with.
Michael T. Martin
Arizona School Boards Association