‘Best practices’ says who?

Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, which looks at “best practices” of schools in Shanghai, Japan, Finland Singapore and Canada, exemplifies the worst practices, writes Jay Greene in Education Next.

Tucker and his National Center on Education and the Economy colleagues describe characteristics of high-achieving countries’ schools, but there’s no proof they’ve picked the key factors, Greene writes.

Worse, Tucker’s recommendations ignore the “best practices” identified by his colleagues. He co-wrote the chapter on Japan and concludes that centralized control of education is a key to success. But every other case study highlights the importance of decentralization, writes Greene.

In Shanghai the local school system “received permission to create its own higher education entrance examination. This heralded a trend of exam decentralization, which was key to localized curricula.”

The chapter on Finland describes the importance of the decision “to devolve increasing levels of authority and responsibility for education from the Ministry of Education to municipalities and schools…. [T]here were no central initiatives that the government was trying to push through the system.”

Singapore is similarly described: “Moving away from the centralized top-down system of control, schools were organized into geographic clusters and given more autonomy…. It was felt that no single accountability model could fit all schools. Each school therefore set its own goals and annually assesses its progress toward meeting them…”

And the chapter on Canada teaches us that “the most striking feature of the Canadian system is its decentralization.”

Tucker also writes that high-achieving countries don’t use the market mechanisms favored by U.S. education reformers, such as charter schools and vouchers, notes Greene. However, the Shanghai chapter describes what it calls “the Chinese version of school choice.”

Canada also offers an “extensive system of school choice,” Greene writes.

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  1. While Tucker is not always right, he does not deserve the outright dismissal that Jay’s column gives him. The issues are far more complex than Jay implies. For example, while Jay is correct that some countries are “moving toward decentralization,” the key is they are moving toward. But they have long been centralized, and the national curriculum that Jay so vociferously opposes has been the hallmark of success in places like South Korea, Sweden, Singapore, and Finland.

    In fact, by focusing on Singapore, Jay is completely ignoring the rise of “Singapore Math” which is a very successful standardized program that many in America are now calling on to replace Everyday Math and haphazard programs with no central focus. Countries like Japan and SKorea are trying to become more American now that their obsessive left-brain systems have produced such fabulous results. They now feel they can improve by expanding to a more creative approach.

    Thus, Tucker can certainly take some criticism. But he’s not the disaster Jay makes him out to be.