Andrew Hargreaves has some ideas about how education can improve and stop demoralizing those who work in schools. First, he looks for the good that Race to the Top may have accomplished. Then he looks at other nations’ experience and finds that those who are most successful are not doing anything that looks like Race to the Top. Hargreaves published two books in 2012: The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence, with Dennis Shirley; and Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, with Michael Fullan.

Hargreaves writes:

Now that the bickering and backbiting of presidential electioneering is over, we have a new opportunity to look at the future of American education with fresh eyes. Many of us, especially Diane Ravitch in this blog, have been critical of the US Race to the Top Strategy and of No Child Left Behind before it.

But suppose, at this moment, even if through gritted teeth, we concede what the work of RTTT has perhaps accomplished. The rise of charter schools has prompted many districts to question the bureaucratic hierarchies and inflexibilities that have strangled innovation and improvement in the past. The new performance-based reward agenda has undoubtedly brought teachers unions to the table to set aside some of their old blue-collar mentality and engage in different conversations about professional quality and recognition. The emergence of online alternatives for learning may be opening more teachers’ minds about the ways that technology can enhance their teaching. Suppose RTTT advocates have been at least partly right when they have insisted that the system had to be broken before it could be fixed.

What does that now mean for the next four years?

First, let’s acknowledge one of the key lessons of Change 101: in any change process, the strategies that get people to one point are rarely the same ones that will get them further. Charismatic leaders can fire people up, but they often have to be followed by more inclusive leaders who are able to distribute wider responsibility for the long-haul of change. No-nonsense leaders may be able to impose immediate order on chaos, but they usually need to be succeeded by leaders who can build collective responsibility for lasting improvement.

What does this mean for the next phase of RTTT?

Are we going to face four more years of breaking up the system into more and more charter school pieces, staffed by teachers with barely one or two years experience? Should educators be confronted with another unrelenting era of fear, threat and cut-throat competition?

In the short-term, fear and threat can create a sense of urgency and grab people’s attention. In the long-run, however, states of perpetual fear and threat just drive all the best people away. Just look at the exodus of top educators who have fled Wisconsin after their grueling battles with Governor Scott Walker.

We believe it’s time to build a new platform on which we can bring our schools back together, strengthen communities of teachers, inspire the educational profession, and keep the best young people in teaching instead of seeing them cycle in and out of the system as if it were a rapidly revolving door. This isn’t just a matter of our personal preferences and beliefs. It’s what the international evidence on high educational performance is clearly showing us.

In our new book, The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence, we describe our research evidence on some of the highest achieving schools and systems around the world such as Finland, Singapore, Alberta, and Ontario.

The first thing that is striking is what we don’t find in all these high-performing systems. We don’t find governments pushing charter schools, fast-track alternative certification programs, and salary bonuses for teachers who get the test scores up.

We don’t see systems testing all students in grades 3 through 8 on reading, writing, and mathematics with a national Department of Education setting the goals from afar, year after year.

We don’t come across governments setting up escalating systems of sanctions and interventions for struggling schools and endless rotations of principals and teachers in and out of schools that erode trust and destroy continuity.

What do we find instead?

We do find a lot of leadership stability and sustainable improvement at the system level, that establishes a platform for innovation to take off in districts and schools.

We do find educators who have gone through excellent university-based preparation programs that are also backed up by extensive practice in schools, and who study research and bring a stance of inquiry to the work they do with their students every day.

We do find a highly respected profession along with a public that lets and expects these trusted professionals to bring their collective talents to bear in their work.

We do find testing that is applied in a couple of grades, not all of them; or to a representative sample of students rather than an unnecessary census of everyone.

And we do find turnaround strategies that rely on connecting struggling schools with higher performers who are tasked with helping them, rather than on parachuting in intervention teams from the top.

In high-performing systems, there is a strong teaching profession backed by powerful and principled professional associations that are in the forefront of educational change. These professional associations are not afraid to challenge government when necessary or to collaborate with them whenever they can. Over 50% of the resources of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, for example, goes to professional development for its members; whereas just 5% or so of teacher union budgets are currently allocated for these purposes in the US.

If you want to improve as a teacher, it’s important to learn from teachers who are doing better. If you are trying to turn around as a school, look to a higher performing school that can give you clues about the best way to proceed. The same is true for the US and other nations.

If, like the US, you are languishing far below the leaders in the international rankings of student achievement, then look, with open eyes and no excuses, at what the highest performing countries are doing instead. Their path is clearly the opposite of what has been pushed on American schools.

Let’s concede that districts and unions may have needed shaking up a bit, if America’s education system was to move forward. But shaking things up isn’t the same thing as improving them. Real and lasting improvement, rather than a few triumphant turnarounds here and there, is going to need something else. High performing counterparts from around the world provide some of the best ideas about what this might be.

If the United States is going to be the world-leader in education that the country’s national wealth and international status lead everyone to expect, what might it do in the next four years to move to the next level? Here are five big changes that can make a huge difference based on the international evidence:

  • Test prudently, in two or three subjects in a couple of grades, not pervasively in almost every single grade all the way up to Grade 8.
  • Shift the focus from fast track programs into teaching itself, to strong pathways that retain the best teachers in the profession.
  • Redirect half of the resources from top-down intervention teams whose impact is temporary at best, towards strategies for schools to assist each other in raising achievement results across district boundaries and even state lines.
  • Commit everyone to exploring how technology can enrich teaching wherever it is truly needed, rather than insisting it replace teachers at every opportunity.
  • Invest more resources in public services as a whole – in housing and infant care, for example – so that educators don’t always have to pick up the slack.

It’s time to look elsewhere for inspiration again. America has always learned from other countries. It adapted Harvard College from Cambridge and Oxford in England, imported the kindergarten from Germany, and adopted the Suzuki method of violin instruction from Japan. The same spirit of curiosity and inventiveness that has served Americans so well in the past can and shoud serve the nation once more.