The National Center on Education and the Economy organized its first international benchmarking trip in 1989 to support the work of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. With a research staff of more than 20, we visited schools, ministries, factories and much more, talking with teachers, school leaders, students, ministers, national experts, journalists, analysts and a host of others. We looked at the data, identified the best research, read historical studies, conducted interviews and kept at it until we were able to build a consistent, plausible understanding of the systems we were looking at.
Our aim was to understand what first class systems of education, training and workforce development looked like as well as the strategies used to produce them and enable them to adapt to a changing world. We wanted to understand the role that context and culture play, but we also wanted to know what lessons transcend culture and context. Our focus was not on individual interventions, but on the system as a whole. We wanted to know what makes for effective systems, systems that, inhabited and run by ordinary people, would consistently produce extraordinary results.
We never stopped doing this. In 2010, Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, asked the OECD to conduct an analysis of the strategies used by the most effective and fastest improving school systems in the world in the hope that the United States might benefit from that knowledge. The OECD accepted the assignment and asked NCEE if we would take the lead in doing the study and drafting the report, under their guidance. We put together a team composed of a number of the world’s leading experts in national education systems analysis and we shared with them our own framework for conducting the research and producing such a report. They were intrigued. No one had ever done this before. That framework represented our best guesses at the time of the principal factors that affect the quality of national education systems, where quality is defined as average achievement, equity of results and system efficiency (what is produced for the amount spent).
The result was the OECD report, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, released in 2011. A year later, a substantially edited version of this report was published by the Harvard University Press as Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems. Both reports concluded with a narrative presentation of our conclusions with respect to the factors affecting overall education system effectiveness.
In 2014, the Commonwealth of Kentucky asked NCEE to help them engage in a process that could lead the state to create policies designed to enable Kentucky to match the performance of the top-performing nations in education. The process we helped Kentucky design required us to boil down what we had learned into a concise and easily grasped document. That was the specific purpose for which the 9 Building Blocks document was first developed.
We do not regard it as a definitive statement of research findings. We view it instead as a working hypothesis, one that we are constantly refining, based on our own research and the research of others. It is based on processes associated with industrial benchmarking, rigorous research of the conventional sort wherever that is available and expert opinion. It is constantly evolving as we get more information and better analysis. And it is constantly improving as it is tested by our experience and the experience of others.
— Marc Tucker and Betsy Brown Ruzzi