NCEE began as the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, a program of Carnegie Corporation of New York, in 1985. Carnegie Corporation created the Forum to focus attention on the important changes taking place in the global economy and the implications for education in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. In June of 1986, the Forum released what came to be called the Carnegie Report, formally A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. The report focused on the need to greatly upgrade and professionalize the American teaching force, to fundamentally change the nature of the education system to take advantage of a professionalized teaching force and to base that new system on higher standards for both students and teachers. It recommended the development of a national system of academic achievement standards for students and the creation of a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as a first step in the process of professionalizing teaching. The staff of the Forum spent the next year creating the new National Board and its director, Marc Tucker, served as its first president.
Following establishment of the Board, Carnegie Corporation provided assistance to Mr. Tucker to enable him to establish the National Center on Education and the Economy as an independent institution to continue the policy development work begun by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.
In 1987, the year following the release of A Nation Prepared, the governor of New York and a team of municipal leaders in Rochester, New York invited NCEE’s initial staff of five people to come to Rochester to implement the recommendations made in A Nation Prepared. NCEE opened its doors in Rochester in 1988.
Tucker had not been in Rochester long before he realized that the problems faced by this urban district were very similar to those faced by most other urban districts. Believing that these challenges could only be met by redesigning the larger system of which school districts are only a part, and understanding that such an approach required far more technical resources than any one district could muster, he approached other urban states and districts with the idea of combining resources to work collaboratively to redesign the education system for higher performance. This was the origin of NCEE’s National Alliance for Restructuring Education, launched in 1989.
In the same year, NCEE began its policy development cycle again by creating the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, with a view to understanding how the dynamics of the global economy were changing the demand for educated and trained labor, learning how the leading nations of the world were responding to those challenges by changing their education and training systems and proposing a course of action for the United States that might enable our own country to field a world-class workforce likely to weather the storms ahead based on what had been learned from other nations. Thus began an investment by NCEE in international benchmarking that has continues to the present day.
The Commission’s report, America’s Choice: high skills or low wages!, was released the following year, in June 1990. Following release of that report, NCEE created its Workforce Development Program, tasked with seeking the policy changes needed to implement the recommendations made in the America’s Choice report. Over the ensuing decade, almost the entire agenda advanced in the report was enacted into legislation by the Congress and signed into law by the President, including the School-to-Work Act, the National Skill Standards Board, and the Workforce Investment Act. At the Rose Garden ceremony at which President Clinton signed his signature education legislation, the President departed from his prepared remarks to single out the contribution made by NCEE to the national education reform agenda. Subsequently, many states also enacted policies designed to support the recommendations made in the America’s Choice report.
The global research done to produce the America’s Choice report showed that the nations with the most successful education systems had carefully thought through national standards for student achievement, curriculum based on those standards and high quality examinations intended to measure the extent to which students mastered that curriculum. But none of the states in this country had such a system. So, in 1991, NCEE invited the University of Pittsburgh, 23 states, six cities and three national foundations to join with it in creating New Standards, a collaborative committed to doing the research and development needed to advance the state of the art in student performance standards and matching assessments to launch the standards movement in the United States. The New Standards initiative has long been widely regarded as some of the best work on standards and assessment done in the United States to date. Many of the leaders in the New Standards work went on to play leading roles in the development of the Common Core State Standards, which built in part on the foundation laid by New Standards.
In 1998, NCEE redesigned its National Alliance for Restructuring Education (NARE) program in light of what it had been learning from its continuing international benchmarking. NARE was renamed the America’s Choice School Design program. The America’s Choice Program produced designs for highly effective elementary, middle and high schools, based on a careful study of the school designs NCEE had found in those countries with the highest levels of student achievement. It also continued the development work begun under the aegis of New Standards to create powerful, coherent instructional systems to support the work of the schools, districts and states served by America’s Choice, concentrating its efforts on the lowest-performing schools typically serving highly disadvantaged students. These instructional systems also reflected what NCEE had learned over the years about instructional systems and materials in the top-performing countries. The Study of Instructional Improvement, the largest study ever conducted of comprehensive school reform programs in the United States, conducted by the University of Michigan on behalf of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, found America’s Choice to be the most effective of all those studied, consistently raising the performance of minority and low-income students by statistically significant amounts in its network’s schools.
In 1999, NCEE was asked by Carnegie Corporation, joined by the Broad Foundation, the Stupski Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund, to create a design for a new kind of national organization to train school principals to lead high performing schools. Three years later, NCEE announced the launch of the National Institute for School Leadership (now known as The Center on System Leadership). The NISL program is now the most widely used school leadership development program in the country and has trained more than 10,000 school principals in 27 states across the country, with four states adopting NISL as their primary school leadership program.
Independent studies by Old Dominion University and Johns Hopkins University have shown that students in schools led by NCEE-trained leaders outperformed their peers on state tests in both mathematics and reading at a cost much lower than other leadership development programs. As a result of this demonstrated record of success, in 2015 and 2016, NCEE received more than $22 million in competitive grants from the U.S. Department of Education to both expand and validate the NISL program and to develop an advanced credentialing system for school principals.
In 2005, NCEE returned to the issues with which it had begun its work, creating the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The research done for the report took as its starting point the changes in the dynamics of the global economy that had occurred since the report of the first Commission was released 15 years earlier and it closely examined the strategies that had been used by one nation after another to surpass the achievement of American students. The second Commission’s report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, released in 2006, offered, for the first time, a comprehensive education reform agenda based on NCEE’s educational benchmarking work over almost 20 years.
Among the most important recommendations in Tough Choices was that the United States adopt two strategies almost universally in evidence in the top-performing countries: the use of board examination systems to define powerful instructional systems, and the use of clearly defined gateways for students through the education system to create strong incentives for all students to take tough courses and to study hard in school. In 2011, NCEE launched the Excellence for All program, a network of 21 high schools committed to piloting these proposals in the United States. These schools became the focus of a multi-year research program to examine what happened when certain fundamental changes in the structure of American high schools intended to greatly reduce dropouts, increase the proportion of high school students ready to succeed in college and reduce or even eliminate the need for college students to take remedial courses before they can qualify to take credit-bearing college courses were implemented. The results of that research have been a very important contributor to the design of NCEE’s greatly expanded design for the NISL program.
By 2010, America’s Choice, which by that time was widely regarded as one of the most successful of all the comprehensive school reform programs, was nonetheless serving only a very small fraction of the students who needed it. NCEE had earlier decided to turn it into a for-profit of the not-for-profit NCEE, in order to attract the capital and experienced business leadership it would need for the projected expansion in capacity and reach. In 2010, NCEE sold its America’s Choice subsidiary to Pearson, plc. In the expectation that this giant corporation would use its resources to reach a much larger number of the students who needed it.
The proceeds of the sale provided NCEE with a financial cushion far into the future, just as the global financial crisis was creating major fiscal challenges for many not-for-profits. In the same year, NCEE arranged for the transfer of the Workforce Development Program’s staff and activities to another not-for-profit, Jobs For the Future. This move enabled NCEE to concentrate on its elementary and secondary school work and greatly enhanced Jobs for the Future’s policy analysis and development capacity.
In the Spring of 2010, Secretary Duncan asked the Secretary-General of the OECD to create a report for the United States on the strategies used by the countries with the most successful education systems. The OECD then asked NCEE to produce that report for them under their supervision. That report was released in December of that year under the name Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education. In November of the following year, Harvard Education Press released a book-length version of the report that NCEE titled Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.
Also in November 2011, NCEE established The Center on International Education Benchmarking, expanding NCEE’s continuing program of comparative research on effective education systems, and developed a comprehensive web portal designed to enable people all over the world to more easily access information, analysis and opinion about the strategies used by the countries with the world’s most successful education systems.
Since its inception, The Center on International Education Benchmarking has undertaken, funded and published groundbreaking research from some of the world’s foremost education researchers and leaders including:
In 2014, NCEE partnered with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) to support a bipartisan study group of state legislators from across the country investigating top-performing education jurisdictions around the world. NCEE supported the study group as it worked over two years to understand what has led to high student performance in those countries, provinces and states. And NCEE helped the study group members think about how what they learn could be adapted to improve the quality and effectiveness of education in US states for all young people. This work resulted in the groundbreaking report No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State.
Over the years, NCEE has evolved a characteristic pattern of development. The Carnegie Forum had both recommended the formation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and then proceeded to follow through by actually creating that organization. NCEE went on to repeat this pattern over the years. In each case, the process began with the recommendations made in a major NCEE report. NCEE then went on to create the organizational capacity needed to implement the changes recommended in the report. That typically took the form of creating a new program within the organization, some with staffs of 200 or more people, doing the development work and offering the technical assistance and training needed to get the recommended policies and practices implemented. When that development and assistance capacity was firmly established and a secure base of funding for it was found, NCEE has spun off that entity and reverted to its original and much more nimble size of two dozen or fewer people and then began the whole cycle all over again.
Thus we are both a “think tank” and a “do tank.” We like to think that our effort to actually implement the recommendations we make in our major reports keeps us honest by forcing us to confront the real implications of our proposals and that our practical experience in the schools and with district and state policy makers improves the quality and fit of our policy work. And we also believe that our policy orientation helps us to see beyond the everyday challenges and examine the features of the system that will result in failure unless we change them. This mix between our daily commitment to teachers, students, school administrators on the one hand, and a commitment no less strong to analyzing the policies and structures that frame the system on the other, has proven over the years to constitute a very powerful learning system for NCEE and its staff. No less powerful is our commitment to learning from other countries with more successful education systems, the hallmark of NCEE’s work over the years. The perspective gained in this way has been unceasingly valuable and has challenged us to closely examine long-accepted practices that may no longer be working, or might never have worked.