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Cross-posted on Education Week

Most everyone knows now that the cost of the U.S. education is at the top of the charts but its students’ performance is only average, when compared to the top-performing countries.  The question is why that is so.

There are, of course, many contributing factors, among them the proportion of students living in poverty, the relatively low quality of our teachers, the lack of a high quality curriculum, and the inequity of our system of financing schools.  Without downplaying any of these factors, however, I will argue that one stands head and shoulders above all the rest, and that is our system of education governance.

I say that because governance is the single most important limiting factor, the factor which, if not changed, will make it impossible to deal constructively with all the others.

To see why this is so, it is necessary to see our education system as a system.  I mean by system what an engineer would mean by that word, a collection of parts and pieces which functions well only if each of their parts and pieces works in such a way that its operation supports the positive functioning of all the other parts and pieces.

When our team goes to visit countries with the best records worldwide, we invariably find that we are looking at very well designed systems, all the parts and pieces of which fit nicely together and support each other well.  We are looking at high performance systems.

I would argue that that is because they all have the equivalent of an engineering team and we have no engineering team.  As a result, they have systems that function well and we have no system at all.  At least not in the sense in which engineers use that term.

Let me illustrate the point.  All our top competitors have some form of curriculum framework that holds their state instructional systems together.  That framework stipulates which topics are to be taught at each grade level in the core subjects in the curriculum.  When that is done, text publishers know that they cannot sell texts that do not reflect the framework.  Schools of education make sure they prepare future teachers to teach those topics at those grade levels.  In the United States, because there has been no such framework, teachers have felt free to teach any topic at any grade level, with the result that students come into any given grade all over the map with respect to what they know and can do, and most teachers therefore have to start at what they think might be the middle, thus boring the advanced and leaving the students with least under their belt mystified.  And the textbook publishers, facing a completely disorganized market, put a little bit of everything in their textbooks, but not enough of anything to support the kind of learning that is going on in the top-performing countries.  And, because there is no curriculum framework, the schools of education feel free to teach anything they want, leaving it to sheer chance whether there is any relationship at all between what teachers are taught and what they will need in order to teach what their students will be expected to learn.

Or consider the question of teacher quality.  In the top-performing countries, the standards for getting into teachers colleges are very high, making it about as hard to get into their teachers colleges as it is to get into our law schools and medical schools and schools of architecture and engineering.  The licensure standards are also very high, and the curriculum in those schools is comparably demanding.  None of that could be true, of course, unless they offered compensation to beginning teachers comparable to that of beginning architects, nor would people who could go into engineering and the law or medicine consider instead going into teaching unless the profession had equally high status in their societies and teachers were trusted to make right decisions in same way that high status professionals are trusted to make the right decisions in their arenas. In the top-performing countries, the people who were responsible for designing these system features were also responsible for designing the others and the system as a whole.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. You do not have this kind of alignment in the United States.  In the United States, it is very easy to get into our schools of education, far easier than it is to get into law or medical schools or schools of engineering.  Pay is very low, as is trust in our teachers.

So, you would say, OK, OK, we get the point.  The U.S. needs to have systems of the same sort as these other countries, instructional systems where the standards, the curriculum, the instructional materials, the assessments and the teacher training are all designed to fit together and support one another.  And we need to have teacher quality systems of the same kind, in which the standards for entry, the curriculum for preparing teachers, the standards for licensure, teacher compensation and teacher working conditions are all designed so that they will support the quest for high quality teachers.

Whoa, wait a minute!  Who, exactly, is supposed to do that?  All of the top-performing countries have something called a ministry of education.  Almost all have ministries at the national level.  Those that don’t have them at the state or provincial level. Some have ministries at both levels. I guarantee you that it is impossible to find a top-performing country that does not have high-performing ministry of education at either the national level or the state level or both.  It is not just that the United States lacks something called a ministry of education; it is that the United States lacks anything that functions like a ministry of education at any level.  That’s the problem.  That is why we do not have well-functioning instructional systems.  That is why we don’t have well-functioning teacher quality systems.  That is why we don’t have well-functioning quality assurance systems.  That is why we don’t have well functioning systems of any kind.  And we will never have top-performing education systems until we can point to an institution that has a set of functions to perform comparable in range and completeness to that of the functions routinely assigned to ministries of education on the top-performing countries.

Nothing, I submit, is more important.  Anything else is nibbling around the edges.  When Governor Patrick took office in Massachusetts, almost everyone thought he was nuts to take on the governance issue right out of the box.  Here he was taking the reins in a state widely thought of as a national and global leader and he wanted to mess with the governance structure.  But he ignored the doubters and went ahead anyway.  Not only did he not wreck the high standing of the state in education sweepstakes, but, when he ran for reelection, his redo of the Commonwealth’s education governance structure was a major plank in his campaign.  And he won.

Not that his restructuring of education in Massachusetts went quite as far as I would recommend but it was good beginning.  And it shows that focusing on education governance is not a sure bet loser.  Is there a candidate for governor out there who thinks he or she might ride to victory on a platform of matching the performance of world’s top-performing nations in education?  Have I got a platform plank for you!