America is still the most innovative country in the world

Article Highlights

  • The notion that America has unique competitive advantages in K-12 is a radical one

    Tweet This

  • Today, we can meet new demands by drawing upon a talent pool and tools unimaginable a century ago

    Tweet This

  • American K-12 schooling is a hotbed of dynamic problem-solving

    Tweet This

When asked how to boost America’s educational competiveness, a staple response is the emphatic assertion that we need to be more like nation X (X can be South Korea, Finland, or wherever the guru has visited most recently). But, just for a moment, let’s entertain the radical proposition that a better course is to tap into uniquely American strengths like federalism, entrepreneurial dynamism, and size and heterogeneity.

"Let’s entertain the radical proposition that a better course is to tap into uniquely American strengths."--Frederick Hess

Those besotted with international envy find it hard to accept that America’s “handicaps” are the inevitable flip side of its unique strengths.  Rather than figuring out how to undo them, we would be better served figuring out to leverage them.
American federalism frustrates “nation X’ers,” who see states not as laboratories of innovation but as unruly children that need to be firmly brought into line.  Thus, they champion national policies for teacher recruitment, preparation, and evaluation. Yet, as with welfare reform, our federal system offers invaluable opportunities to explore different approaches to incentives, monitoring, and delivery.  Since the “right” model of teacher evaluation or preparation is hardly self-evident, much less the “best” way to help teachers use new technologies like computer-assisted tutoring or online instruction, this natural variation provides an invaluable asset.

American growth and prosperity have long been fueled by a dynamic private sector supported by sensible public investments in research, transportation, and ensuring honest and open markets.  In automobiles, air travel, appliances, media, personal technology, software, and any number of venues, entrepreneurs have lit our path.

America is a really big nation.  By population, it’s the third largest country in the world, and it boasts the most racially and culturally diverse society in history.  This is a huge impediment for those who dream of mimicking national policies suited to tiny islands of homogeneity (like Finland).  However, this makes the U.S. capable of embracing and supporting many models of teaching and schooling, with each still able to reach critical mass. 

Now, the notion that America has unique competitive advantages in K-12 is a radical one. More prevalent are grandiloquent international best practice reports, from the likes of the National Center on Education and the Economy or McKinsey Consulting, in which the authors identify a couple of homogenous nations the size of Minnesota that produce good test scores, cherry-pick a few of their educational practices, and then draw broad prescriptions.

Such reports represent a triumph of the bureaucratic mindset and a disdain for America’s historic strengths.  Earlier this year, the Washington Post’s Charles Lane eviscerated the fascination with Germany's economic "miracle" as a case of latching onto a "foreign flavor of the month." He recalled the awe that the smart set once evinced for the economies of "Japan, Inc." and the Soviet Union, and noted that Germany’s current success benefits from liberalization "that made the country a little bit more like...the United States." Lane wisely advised, “[While] there's plenty we can learn from the Germans, Japanese, Chinese, [and everyone else]...Americans need to identify our comparative advantages--social, cultural, political and economic-- and exploit them, instead of worrying about copying the competition."

Embracing America’s comparative advantages requires appreciating that, when the world changes, the challenges, as well as the tools, talent, and technology at our disposal, also change.  Seeking to provide high-quality instruction to every child in the 21st century is a sea change from our agenda a century ago—when we only expected one student in ten to finish high school and when it was impossible to instruct a child who was 1,000 feet away.  Today, we can meet new demands by drawing upon a talent pool and tools unimaginable in 1911.

"American K-12 schooling is a hotbed of dynamic problem-solving."--Frederick Hess

American K-12 schooling is a hotbed of dynamic problem-solving on this front.  Non-profits like Teach For America, Florida Virtual School, The New Teacher Project, Carpe Diem, and Citizen Schools are showing new ways to recruit and utilize educators.  For-profits like Wireless Generation, Tutor.com, Pearson, Discovery, and Rosetta Stone are offering up a range of ways to harness new tools and technology to support teaching and learning.

Figuring out how to leverage these new problem-solvers is a place where our state systems, districts, and schools have fumbled badly.  This is an area where would-be reformers have devoted far too little attention. Meanwhile, not only have the “best” performing nations not done any better on this count, but the schemes promoted by those covetously eyeing Finland inevitably entail oodles of regulations and rule-writing calculated to stifle such providers. 

Indeed, if we look to nations that are gearing up to lead the pack in 2052, rather than 2012, we see that countries like Qatar and India are busy leaning on these American ventures to help them make the leap.  We would be well-advised to take the hint, and to push forward by drawing on what the U.S. has always done best.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Frederick M.
Hess

What's new on AEI

Love people, not pleasure
image Oval Office lacks resolve on Ukraine
image Middle East Morass: A public opinion rundown of Iraq, Iran, and more
image Verizon's Inspire Her Mind ad and the facts they didn't tell you
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Event Registration is Closed
Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.