Join us in Seattle on June 26-29 for the NCEE Leaders Retreat. Learn more here.

By Marc Tucker, President of the National Center on Education and the Economy

Ribbon Cutting

Welcome to Top of the Class, our new monthly e-newsletter, and also to our new website. Both are intended to provide you with a gateway into a world that appears to be of great interest to a growing number of educators and policy makers everywhere, a world defined by the accomplishments of the nations whose schools are at the top of the league tables and by the strategies they are using to get on top and stay on top.

Some countries have been working hard to stay abreast of what the best performers have been doing for a hundred years or more. But, until recently, most, if they are part of former colonial systems, have been content to follow developments in their home country or, if not, in nearby countries.

That made sense when most workers were competing with other workers in their own community, metropolitan area, or region. But that is no longer the case. Thirty years ago, the steady reduction in the costs of shipping since World War II and the advances in communications in the same period made it possible for the first time for manufacturers based in any part of the world to design their products in one country, build them in another on the other side of the world, and then sell them anywhere. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, manufacturers were seeking the lowest cost labor in the world for products that could be made by low-skilled workers. Major manufacturing corporations in high cost countries were “hollowed out,” leaving only a small design, marketing, finance, and sales staff in the home country, and shipping out the much more numerous manufacturing jobs to the countries with the cheapest low skill labor forces.

Then, those low-skill countries decided that they wanted to be richer and began to invest part of their new wealth in the education and training that would enable their people to move up the value ladder, take over the other functions that the high wage countries had reserved for themselves, and join the ranks of developed nations.

At the same time, information technology and the Internet began to transform workplaces. More and more work was done by people using computers. As they did that work, they increasingly relied on resources that came to them through local networks and the Internet. And, increasingly, their work product could be sent digitally to another worker and then on to the final customer. In recent years, this process has applied to more and more varied kinds of jobs. Now, employers can put together global work teams composed of members from all parts of the world who do not have to move to participate.

The same technology is progressively eliminating more jobs by automating work once done by humans. This applies not just to low-skill work, but to almost any kind of work that can be routinized.

It is, of course, true that some jobs have to be done by people who are close to the customer, but, it is increasingly true that, for a growing variety of jobs, employers can choose to hire workers anywhere in the world who have the skills they are looking for and can pay the lowest going wage for those skills wherever they can find them. So high-skill workers are now competing with high-skill workers everywhere else on the basis of the relative cost of their labor. And the same holds for medium-skill workers and low-skill workers, too.

As more low-skill work goes to low-wage countries and as those countries use some of their newfound wealth to upgrade their skills to earn higher wages, the supply of higher-skilled people grows. That puts downward pressure on the wages of everyone in the developed countries, but it makes things especially painful for relatively low-skill people in the developed countries, because their wages are often high compared to the highly skilled in the less developed countries. They simply cannot sell their labor in the world market at the prices that are needed to survive in the developed countries.

It is also the case that not all jobs can be automated. But more and more routine work is being done by automated machinery, more of the remaining jobs are demanding highly-skilled, creative people to do the work that cannot be done by computers. And the growing global demand from the burgeoning middle class is producing ever-greater demand for the kinds of products and services that only creative, highly-skilled people can design and produce. So, worldwide, in the developed countries, we are seeing growing demand for creative, highly educated and skilled people and declining demand for low-skilled people capable of doing only routine work. That is raising the wages of the former and lowering the wages of the latter. Countries that care about the standard of living of their population and worry about the growing inequality of income produced by the factors I just described have no choice but to concern themselves with the level and distribution of the skills of their workforces, because they hold the key to their country’s future.

So it is no surprise that these factors are now combining to produce intense interest in the policies that are needed to develop very highly educated and skilled workforces with very high levels of creativity. Such workforces are increasingly seen as the key to national prosperity, both for countries that are already high-wage countries and want to at least maintain their standard of living and for those that would like to join those who already have that status.

This is not just a matter of fine-tuning national education systems. Systems that were once designed to produce a mass of people with basic literacy and a small elite now need to be wholly redesigned to produce what amounts to a mass education system capable of educating everyone to a standard formerly thought appropriate only for the elite.

The question, of course, is how that can be done. The premise of our enterprise is that the most sensible answer to that question is to study the countries that have already done it. Not to copy them, but to learn from them and adapt what we learn to our own situation. And so we come to the purpose of our newsletter and website.

Consider the policy maker who turns to her aide and asks for the best information on the strategies the state should pursue to top the global charts for the quality of its education system and its workforce.

The aide will quickly find that there are many agencies all over the world that have information that bears on the request, however she will also find that the information is scattered across various websites, reports, and online libraries. An intense research process would be necessary to answer questions such as: What countries are leading the world in student achievement and how did they make their way to the top? What were these countries’ policymakers setting out to achieve, what strategies did they put in place, and to what level of success? What do the leading experts in the field have to say about these policies and how they have been implemented? How are these countries approaching issues such as teacher quality or school finance? There is an enormous amount of information available to our fictional aide that bears on all of these possible inquiries, but it is not easy to access or to integrate. We aim to fix that, not just for our fictional aide, but for policymakers, journalists, researchers, and practicing educators all over the world.

CIEB web siteWe will begin by focusing on eleven countries: the ten countries identified by the PISA data as the best performers in the world and, in addition, the United States. You will have access to brief descriptions of their education systems and reform programs. From time to time, we will post new white papers issued by their ministries, articles from their newspapers describing new developments and controversies, and analyses of their reforms by supporters and critics and others inside and outside the country. There will be tables comparing each of them to the others we are following, links to sources for those countries, including their ministry website, key research centers and others from which you should be able to obtain more in-depth material. All of this is arranged so that the searcher can get everything from a quick overview to answers to detailed questions about the country and its education system as quickly and easily as possible.

You can think of what I just described as the “Access by Country” system but we also provide “Access by Issue”. We’ve selected a small set of issues that appear to be at or near the top of the list for education policy makers all over the world, from “Teacher and Principal Quality” to “Education Finance”. Information about each of the top-performing countries is organized by these issue categories.

In addition to the new section of our website I just described, our organization will provide information, opinion and analysis in this newsletter. In this space, I will write a monthly opinion piece, focused on the issues of the day. From time to time, I will invite others to do a guest piece in my place. The prime candidates for that role are the members of our International Advisory Board.  But we do not want our newsletter to be the voice of any particular orthodoxy. From time to time, we will run debates on important issues, involving prominent advocates for opposing views.

There are still other features of our new newsletter that we hope you will find useful. Not least is a featured statistical commentary. Every month we will also highlight a newspaper article or country white paper that is particularly noteworthy, sometimes along with a commentary that we commission from a prominent person on the international education scene.

Our aim, as I said at the outset, is to provide you with information, analysis and opinion that you find useful. You can—and I hope you will—play an active role in this enterprise. Let us know what is useful to you and what is not. If you know of a white paper, research report, or opinion piece or anything else that you think would be of interest to our audience, send it along. We’d be happy to acknowledge it as your suggestion when we list it. If you have an idea that you think would improve our site or our newsletter, please let us know.

Though Steve Jobs always reminded us how important individual contributions are, we are also constantly reminded of the “wisdom of the crowd,” the idea that many good heads are better than one. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the recent surge of interest in international benchmarking in education is the prospect that all students, everywhere will benefit as never before from a worldwide exchange of information, ideas and analysis about the goals of education, and which strategies are most likely to make for effective education systems under which conditions.