No Time to Lose: An Urgent Call to Action

ncsl-logoA new report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State, wastes no time in getting to the point.  “The bad news,” it says in the very first sentence, “is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy. The U.S. workforce, widely acknowledged to be the best educated in the world half a century ago, is now among the least educated in the world…Pockets of improvement in a few districts or states is not enough to retain our country’s global competitiveness.”

This report was written by a study group of state legislators, most of them long-serving, from all over the country, equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.  They wrote it after two years of hard study together, reading through great stacks of materials, visiting other countries, traveling across the country to meet with one another and global experts, almost all of them attending every meeting.

There are six big messages in this report:

  1. A big warning: the country’s competitive position is in grave danger, compromised by an education system that is falling further and further behind the leaders, to the point that the American workforce is now among the least well educated in the industrialized world.
  2. No state will be able to catch up with the global leaders without a clear vision for the kind of economy and education system it wants, and it will get one only by conducting a big, very inclusive conversation involving all the major stakeholders designed to lead to a broad and deep consensus on a shared vision.
  3. The good news:  the coalition behind that consensus does not have to wonder how to greatly improve the performance of the state education system because there are more than 20 countries, most of them the size of American states, that now have education systems performing better than ours. We can catch up if we eat a little humble pie and decide to learn from them, benchmarking their systems and using what we learn to build a system uniquely designed to fit each state’s own circumstances.
  4. The top performers got there not by finding the right silver bullet, but by building effective education systems, all the parts and pieces of which were designed to work in harmony with the others, each part supporting the whole.  Legislators need to devote a lot more attention to the effectiveness of their education systems taken as a whole.
  5. But getting the vision right, making sure the commitment to that vision is both broad and deep and agreeing on what the whole system ought to look like does not mean that the whole system can or should be put in place all at once.  No other country has done that.  The NCSL study group says, in effect, start somewhere and build out piece-by-piece, keeping the whole design in mind all the time.
  6. Build an organizational structure the coalition can use to stay on course through different administrations and even changes in party control.

With help from NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking, the NCSL study group worked hard to see if it could identify common threads in the strategies used by the top-performing countries.  Here is what they found:

1.Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.

2. A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed. Keys to building a world-class teaching corps include:

  • Selective recruitment
  • Rigorous preparation and licensure
  • Thorough induction
  • Career ladders or lattices
  • Professional work environments
  • High-quality professional school leaders
  • Higher compensation
  • World-class instructional systems
  • A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.
  • Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.

Throughout, the study group report makes it clear that American schools typically fall far short of what the top performers do in each and every one of these areas, and they point to the kinds of policies and practices that would be needed to bring an American state into the ranks of the top performers.

You can find the report here.

For more commentary on the report, see