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Cross-posted at Education Week.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Cathy (C.M.) Rubin, who runs the global education publication  We spoke as part of her ongoing series, The Global Search for Education.  We covered a multitude of topics that I hope might be of interest to Top Performers readers.  You can find Cathy’s series at her website. Below is the interview. -MST

The Future of Education with Marc Tucker

Fears of rising unemployment fueled by automation of millions of jobs requires more focus on what education is needed to foster the skills and training people need for a future of artificial intelligence. How are education systems around the world responding to a constantly changing environment? How is the United States dealing with lost jobs that now can be done more cheaply and reliably by machines?


Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. For two decades, his research has focused on the policies and practices of the countries with the best education systems. His latest book is Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems. 

The Global Search for Education welcomes Marc Tucker.

Marc, what have we learned since the 1986 Carnegie Report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century?

The 1986 Carnegie Report made a case for the idea that the economic challenges the nation would face in the years ahead could not be met unless students were held to much higher academic standards and the nation did what would be necessary to fully professionalize its teaching force, much as medicine had done a century earlier. A growing number of nations that did these two things and did them well have gotten further and further ahead of the United States in both student achievement and equity, while the United States has only very poorly implemented its standards and treated its teachers with contempt.

It seems like we have a new generation of ‘Dustbowl’ victims with the loss of manufacturing in America. Nothing indicates that these jobs will come back. And yet many seem reluctant to retrain. What is to be done about the relationship between adult education and the coming automated, globalized economy?

The demand for workers with only what we in the United States call the basic skills has collapsed in high-wage countries in the face of globalization and automation. Politicians have persuaded them that this is the result of unfair treaties, but the truth is that much of the work these people can do can now be done more cheaply and reliably by machines. They want their old jobs back and do not want to work in offices and move to other parts of the country. And they do not want to go back to school or be retrained. The Ice Age hunters did not want to settle down on the farm. The home weavers didn’t want to work in factories. The Dustbowl farmers did not want to leave the prairie to work in California aircraft factories. But they all did. Manufacturing output is increasing in America, but the manufacturing workforce has been getting smaller and smaller as the machines take over. Those jobs are never coming back. Those that do well will be the very highly skilled workers who make the machines that make the machines.

What advice do you have for the president to improve 21st century skills needed to compete in the global economy?

A growing number of other countries are turning out entire high school graduating classes that are much better educated than ours, with much more equity, and they are doing it at a lower cost per student. Years ago, when Japanese manufacturers came out of nowhere to produce much higher quality manufactured products than U.S. manufacturers, at much lower cost, the American manufacturers who beat them were the ones who sent their engineers to Japan to see how the Japanese did it. American educators need to go and see how these other countries are doing it. When they do, they will see countries that really take good care of families with very young children; make sure school funds are distributed fairly; work really hard to develop very high-quality teachers and then trust them; set their standards for student performance high and create demanding modern curriculums; put as much effort into creating high-quality vocational programs as they do into creating high quality academic programs; and so on. None of this is rocket science. But there are no silver bullets. You have to do all of it and do it really well.

We have a literacy problem in America (particularly in places of concentrated poverty). What’s the root cause and what are your solutions?

An unconscionably large proportion of our kids are growing up in poverty, in homes that do not have books, where children are not read to, where only a very limited vocabulary is used, where children do not have the range of experiences that would enable them to understand the meaning of the words that kids in other homes regularly use. When these kids show up for the first day of first grade, they are already far behind. Their vocabulary is so limited that they cannot understand much of what goes on in class. After three or four years of this, they are so far behind that they cannot catch up and so they give up. How do we fix this? If we went to root causes, we would go to work to fix the poverty. Failing that, we would deal, before these children ever get to school, with at least some of the symptoms, with decent health and dental care, nutrition programs, food support, the whole long list of material things that are missing in these children’s lives. Failing that, we would just try to make them safe in decent, affordable child care facilities and provide high-quality early childhood education. And then, if none of this happened—and it has not yet happened for most of the children who so desperately need it—we would do the best we could once they got to school.

We like to produce a long list of skills we want to impart to students for their success in the 21st century. Critical thinking and communication fluency (reading and writing) usually top the list. What do you see as the disconnect between students and access to these skills?

The only 21st century skill is digital literacy. All the rest of what we call 21st century skills were taught at Eton and Harrow in the 1890’s to the future masters of the British Empire–critical thinking, communications, teamwork, leadership, blah, blah, blah. Back then, we thought that the future masters of the universe were the only people who would need those skills. Now the machines will do the routine work and everyone will need the skills that used to be taught—and probably still are—at Eton and Harrow. We now have to think of mass education as providing the whole range of values, cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills. Our best high schools in the top suburbs have always done this, not just in their classrooms, but in their clubs, sports and other extracurricular activities, too, combined with what well-to-do parents did for their kids by way of music lessons and internships in Congressional offices and service in down-on-their-luck countries. Once again, the issue is how to enable the ordinary schools to do for ordinary kids what the wealthy have always done for their kids.

 “Today’s solution is tomorrow’s challenge if we fail to adapt to a constantly changing environment.” Where have you seen good examples of educational practice that is adapting to constant change? 

A growing number of countries have institutional structures now that are designed to help the schools understand and respond to changes continuously. A growing number of ministries of education have growing units dedicated to benchmarking other countries’ economies and education systems. They don’t copy what they see, but they are constantly scanning the horizon to see what other countries are paying attention to and how they are responding to the changes they see coming down the road.

What are the reasons that you believe that everyone is capable of serious intellectual accomplishment at some level and that the accumulation of expert knowledge in one arena is dangerous if it is not grounded in a broad, deep and humane understanding of the human condition and a well-grounded moral sensibility? What issues do you see for a democracy like ours if serious learning is monopolized by our elites? 

The answer to your first question here is simple. When I see countries in which the performance of students in the lowest quartile is, on average, as high as the students in our highest quartile, then I know that the students in our lowest quartile could do far better if they were properly supported. We have all the empirical evidence we need that that is true.

I would heartily endorse your statement that the accumulation of expert knowledge in one—or for that matter many—areas is dangerous if not grounded in a broad, deep and humane understanding of the human condition and a well-grounded moral sensibility. Further, I am very concerned that the foundations of our liberal democracies are under challenge now to a degree not seen since the end of the Second World War. When I am visiting education systems in East Asia and South Asia, I am often struck by the emphasis on values as the people in those countries talk about what is most important to them in their systems.

Much of my work has focused on the need to adapt our education system to the changes taking place in the global economy. But that is not because I see education mainly as a matter of producing a capable workforce or of earning a living, although those things are important. I focus on these issues because I think that liberal democracy cannot survive the kinds of inequalities that have now become the norm in the industrialized world.

There are no subjects in the curriculum more important to me than history and the humanities. I am a creature of the Scottish Enlightenment in my intellectual preferences and general view of the world, but, for me, it is in literature and the theater that character and the human condition are paramount, and that is always the heart of the matter. As far back as the ancient Greeks, we knew that character is everything. That, by the way, was, I think, the belief of the headmasters of Eton and Harrow, the keepers of the 19th century’s version of the 21st century skills.