A leading researcher and thinker on international education drew tense exchanges with Tennessee lawmakers Tuesday during a presentation critical of many aspects of the U.S. education reform movement – even prompting one legislator to call his ideas “communism.”

Comments during the presentation also shed light on lawmakers’ stances on issues such as the Common Core, which is on the legislative agenda this session through several bills that would scrap or replace the state’s new standards for K-12 learning in public schools.

Marc Tucker, president of the nonprofit National Center of Education and the Economy and an editor of Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems, spoke during a joint meeting of House education committees.

He described the book’s examination of high-performing school systems in nations and cities such as Canada, Finland and Shanghai. The authors conclude that the U.S. education reform movement doesn’t resemble the reforms of nations with the best schools. Spending money on lowering class sizes hasn’t worked, he said, nor have increased school options or tougher accountability systems.

Marc Tucker
PHOTO: NCEE
Marc Tucker

Tucker highlighted the importance of increasing teacher quality and ceding some local control of schools. He said that charter schools and choice do little to boost student performance — an opinion that flies in the face of many House members’ public stances on education policy in Tennessee. Bills on reforms such as standards, school-choice options and test-based teacher evaluations will be a large focus of education committee work this legislative session.

Tucker told legislators that the only action the United States currently is doing correctly in education reform is implementing academic standards based on critical thinking skills, referring to the Common Core standards that Tennessee has used in all grades for math and reading for the past two school years. Tucker never explicitly used the words “Common Core” — a phrase seemingly verboten on Capitol Hill this year — but has discussed his support for the standards in other contexts.

Tucker spoke about the need for a centralized approach to education, rather than local district autonomy. He said many successful school systems have education policy decisions made almost exclusively at the national level, although mostly in nations much smaller than the United States.

Rep. Rick Womick (R-Rockvale), a member of the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, was visibly upset by Tucker’s advocacy of loosening local control of schools and spoke for about three minutes about the importance of the “American exceptionalism” displayed by the Founding Fathers during the Revolutionary War.

Rep. Rick Womick
PHOTO: TN.gov
Rep. Rick Womick

“That’s what we need to get back to. We need to put it back in the hands of our local school boards, parents, teachers and principals,” Womick said. “This whole idea of bringing government in and centralized control … I will always oppose that, just like I oppose Common Core.”

He went on: “This idea of bringing everybody under one collective system, that’s nothing but communism. That’s exactly what it is. It’s centralized control.”

Womick and Rep. Roger Kane (R-Knoxville), a member of the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee, also questioned Tucker’s research about teachers. Tucker said the United States needs to do better at attracting its best and brightest people to the teaching profession. He highlighted countries that pay teachers higher wages, as well as provide more planning time, professional development and leadership opportunities.

“I am a teacher,” said Womick, who taught for three years in the 1980s and now works as a pilot. “And I was not one of those teachers at the bottom quarter of his class. And I take offense at saying that our teachers are not the smartest people.”

Not all legislators were disturbed by Tucker’s presentation.

Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), chairman of the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, said Tucker’s book greatly influenced him. “The first time I heard this gentleman speak, I began to challenge my basic ideas and views on education,” said Brooks, adding that the book pushed him to think about Tennessee’s schools in a more global context, not just a national one.

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also referred to the 2011 book when she spoke earlier this month to legislative education committees.

Tucker suggested that other reforms being championed in Tennessee — increased school choice options and test-based teacher evaluations – don’t help student learning, although he clarified that there may be other reasons to pursue them when Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis) asked if Tennessee should drop those reforms.

Surpassing Shanghai includes essays from six authors, including Tucker and Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University and a critic of standardized testing.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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