by Cheryl Jackson Monday September 20, 2010

Even when they're doing badly, or maybe because they are, the Americans create a buzz. This time it was Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education. Everyone at the Building Blocks for Education Conference wanted to hear what he had to say. I suspect it's because our education system looks so good in comparison to that of the U.S.

Here are some astounding facts Duncan told us in his address:

- One generation ago more adults in the U.S. had an Associate, or Bachelor, degree than any other nation. Today, America is tied for 9th place in the world in college attainment.

- Today, 42% of Americans aged 25-34 have an Associate, or Bachelor degree. In South Korea, the percentage is 58%.  In Canada, it's 56%.

- Fewer than 2000 American schools provide half of the nation's drop outs.

-75% of America's drop outs come from Afro-American and Latino minorities.

-Canadian 15-year-olds are more than a year ahead of their American counterparts on international math and science scores.

Wow. How did things get this bad?  Duncan himself says reasons include putting the least experienced teachers in the most challenging schools, the tendency for bureaucrats to inflate student results for political reasons, only to leave students un-prepared for work or college, and of course there's the high-expectation, poorly funded "No Child Left Behind" policy which has left teachers and administrators frustrated and unsuccessful.

Turning things around isn't going to be easy. The U.S. has a huge population by comparison to countries which traditionally do very well on education scores. Both Finland and Singapore, which top the lists, have populations that hover around 5 million. Canada, which does very well by international standards, has about 33 million people. The U.S., on the other hand, has 300 million citizens, 100,000 public schools and 50 million students.

Duncan is hoping to do what Ontario and many countries around the world are doing with 'whole system reform'.  He wants to establish country-wide standards, monitor them accurately, improve professional development and evaluation of teachers and school leaders, and commit to dramatic change in persistently low-performing schools. 

Noble goals, but the American culture may get in the way. Duncan's speech contained several references to competition, winners, and the new flagship education program is called "Race to the Top." Schools have to compete for limited funding from this program, and I don't see how that will help the most vulnerable, lowest-performing schools. They're likely to be the ones who don't have the time to fill out yet another application for funding. 

But at least they're trying. And they came here to learn from us. That feels good.