In 2010, the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, asked the National Center on Education and the Economy — along with others — to create a report on education strategies of the United State’s top competitors. The official report was submitted last December, and this month Harvard University Press is releasing a volume of policy recommendations based on the research: “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.” The book is edited by the president of the NCEE, Marc S. Tucker, who has long campaigned for creating more thorough standards in U.S. education.
Why has the idea of standards in education been such a driving force in your career as a researcher and author?
When the performance of our students is compared with that of students in other countries, we tend to come out somewhere between the middle and the bottom distribution. This country ought to be very, very concerned about that. Most economists agree that in the long run, a country’s standard of living is a function of how well educated [and] how skilled its people are. Time after time, when we look at how these other countries are doing this, we find that they have set high standards and put curricula in place to get students to those standards.
Was No Child Left Behind a step in the right direction, from your perspective?
It was, in the sense that the country got concerned about standards. But No Child left it up to the states to determine their own standards, and they imposed severe consequences on schools that failed to meet those standards, so many of the states deliberately set low standards to ensure that their schools wouldn’t have to face the music.
In some conservative circles, you’re often demonized for a set of policy suggestions you sent to Hillary Clinton in 1992 — the “Dear Hillary letter.” What is your response to this uproar?
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These critics say it was a plan to turn their children into little cogs in the industrial wheel, with regional boards that will assign children — Soviet-style — to a particular career. You won’t find a word in that letter to support that view. I urge you to Google the text and read it. I’ve never entertained any thoughts like that. It’s absurd. What I was doing in that letter was simply saying that we don’t have the kind of system that most top-performing countries have, in which the pieces fit together in a way that serves kids.