Dramatic Improvement in Education Systems: What it Takes

Cross-posted at Education Week

The nations with the best-performing education systems have two things in common that have nothing to do with the specific education policies and practices they have embraced.  The first has to do with the goals they have chosen to embrace.  The second has to do with the conditions that are needed for paradigmatic change in education systems.  The two are intimately related.

To illustrate my point, I will choose a few of the countries that are now or have recently been among the top ten performers on the PISA surveys of student achievement.  Each of these countries experienced some cataclysmic economic threat that served to catalyze political developments that made it possible for the political leaders of all parties to create a broad national consensus around the need for a new education paradigm.

Take Australia.  In the late 1980s, Britain joined the European Union.  To do that, it was required by the EU to terminate the web of special mercantile economic relationships that tied it to the former Commonwealth countries.  Australia’s economy was highly dependent on those relationships.  Its leaders woke up one day to the prospect of economic disaster when the special economic relationship came to an end.  A far-sighted Australian labor leader organized a delegation of business, labor and union leaders to benchmark the world’s leading economies to seek a solution.  They came back to Australia convinced that the Australian economy would tank unless two things happened: Australia diversified its products and its customers and, at the same time, made the right strategic investments in the skills of its workforce to become a world leader in high value-added products and services.  The benchmarkers succeeded in producing a consensus that bridged the two major parties on these points that lasted for years.

Finland went through a similar experience.  It, too, had a special economic relationship that held the key to its economy, in that case its relationship with the Soviet Union, on which its economy was highly dependent.  When the Soviet Union suddenly fell apart, the economic relationship dissolved and the Finnish economy went into a tailspin far worse than the one it experienced in the 1930s.  The Finnish elders of all parties came together to rally the country around two key ideas.  The first was the need to make Finland a high-tech economy, built around telecommunications, and the other was to call on the best of its young people to become school teachers as an act of patriotism, to make sure that Finland would have the world class technical workforce needed to realize the dream of technological leadership.  Finland had a lot going for it in education before this happened, but this crisis and the Finnish leadership’s response to it contributed in a very important way to Finland’s rise to world leadership in education.

Much the same thing happened in Japan during the Meiji revolution in the late 1800s.  Humiliated by the unequal treaties Japan’s government had negotiated with the West after Admiral Perry’s “black ships” had “opened” Japan, a group of young bureaucrats overthrew the government and headed to Europe to renegotiate the treaties.  When they got there, they were stunned at how far ahead of the Japanese the Europeans were in science, technology and industry.  They understood that Japan could only catch up if it completely modernized its highly elitist education system.  It threw out that system lock, stock and barrel and installed another.  The new one was built on the principle that all young Japanese had to have access to an education the equal of the one that Japan had up until that time provided only to its elite Samurai class.  What they kept from the old system was a crucial feature: the employment of teachers from that very same Samurai class.  In this way, Japan anticipated the modern Western education reforms by close to a century.

Or take China. Mao, in an effort to cleanse China of those features of Confucian culture that he thought had contributed to China’s humiliation and also to stifle what he thought was the corruption of his own revolution from within, instituted the Cultural Revolution.  Seeing teachers and professors as instruments of the old order, he closed down China’s education institutions.  After ten years of this, when Deng Xiao Ping took over, China had to develop an education system from scratch.  Like the Japanese bureaucrats who made the Meiji revolution a century earlier, Deng was among the few Chinese leaders who had been in the West and understood how far behind the West the Chinese were in science, technology and industrial development.  He, too, realized that China could not catch up unless it made a heroic effort to build a modern education system at every level, from the ground up, using Western models adapted for his country’s needs.

Almost every country that leads the list of top performers in education has a story like this to tell, a story in which the leaders of the country were able to remodel the national education system on new principles as a matter of urgent national necessity, an urgency perceived by almost everyone, an urgency that made it possible not just to install new policies and practices, but whole new paradigms, often as a matter of national survival.

It is also true, and very important, that in most—but not all—of these cases, that sense of urgency to build a new education system on a new paradigm was linked to a new vision of the society these countries wanted to build.  For different reasons, at different times, these top-performing countries came to a consensus on the kind of economy they wanted.  What distinguished Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Finland, Canada, Switzerland and others from many of their competitors is that they decided at a certain point that they were not going to compete internally or in international trade on the price of their labor, but rather on the quality of the goods and services they offered to each other and to the world.  They wanted broadly shared prosperity.  They understood that no nation can get rich as its citizens get or remain poor.  They understood that the only way a country can provide broadly shared prosperity is to create an economy in which the whole workforce is adding a great deal of value to the things it makes and the services it provides, and the only way that will happen is if everyone, at every level of the workforce, is deeply educated and highly trained.  So they decided, in effect, to compete on the quality, not the price, of their labor.  The commitment to education and training is an ineluctable consequence of the commitment to broadly shared prosperity.


The United States sits on the fence.  As a nation, we are home to many enterprises run by people who believe they will go out of business if the price of labor rises.  Those enterprises compete on the price of labor, not on the quality of labor. The people who run such businesses are not likely to make the kind of commitment to improving the quality of our education system that is needed to make the fundamental changes necessary to greatly improve the quality of our labor force.  It is also true, of course, that there are many other enterprises run by people deeply committed to adding as much value as possible to the things they make and the services they render.  But, taken as a whole, the United States is deeply divided on this issue, and does not even know it

The question as to what kind of economy we want is not a technical matter.  It is a political matter.  It is not, however, a partisan matter.  There is, as I see it, no more consequential matter for the United States.  The destiny of this country will rise or fall on the way we answer this question.  If we choose to compete on the price of our labor, we condemn ourselves to increasing poverty and political instability.  If we choose to compete on quality and the value we add to things we make and services we offer, we have a good chance of experiencing broadly shared prosperity and the political stability that comes with it.

The difference will be made by one thing and one thing only: political leadership.  I, for one, will be very interested in whether these issues, framed this way, will rise to the surface in the coming presidential election.  I know where I stand.  Where do you stand?