Teacher quality is "only ... as good as the system that recruits, prepares, and compensates the nation’s teachers,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The U.S. must mirror the educational practices of top-performing countries if it is to regain its competitive advantage, according to a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE).

One of the major discrepancies between the U.S. and countries that are outperforming it educationally is the performance differences between students from high- and low-income families.

The NCEE hosted a May 24 symposium to discuss the findings of its report, called “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform.”

“The United States, out of 24 countries, is exceeded only by Chile, Hungary, Germany, and Luxembourg in the degree to which socioeconomic status predicts student achievement,” said Marc Tucker, president of NCEE.

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“A number of nations today are simply out-educating the United States,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Tucker pointed out that policies used by the U.S. in targeting low-performing schools are ignored by higher-performing countries.

“Among the strategies that they appear not to be using are those that have been most advocated in the United States,” Tucker said, identifying smaller class sizes and more money as key concepts that have been passed over by foreign education systems.

Meanwhile, these countries are using strategies that the U.S. has largely ignored. In fact, the only approach that the U.S. and top-performing countries have in common is the effort to develop internationally benchmarked student achievement standards and higher-quality assessments.

“Every single one of [the high-performing countries] have an intent interest in what the top performers are doing and how they do it, and it is a sustained interest,” Tucker said, implying that U.S. policy makers could learn from these other countries but have shown little interest in doing so.

One major difference between the United States and the countries whose education systems outperform the U.S. is their different treatment of educators. Tucker called on the U.S. to beef up its teacher education programs and to shift education budgets from buildings and books to teachers and disadvantaged students.

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Other countries “pay their teachers more than they pay their engineers. We don’t pay them enough to support their families in some states,” Tucker said.

Referring to a system of education funding in which local tax revenues provide most of the support, he added: “We are one of only four countries who provide more money to the best-off kids [than the worst-off].”

Duncan agreed that well-trained teachers are critical to a successful education system.

“Teachers need to be treated as professionals, not as interchangeable cogs,” said Duncan. “The familiar sentiment is that the nation’s education system can only be as good as its teachers. … [But] the quality of the teachers can only be as good as the system that recruits, prepares, and compensates the nation’s teachers.”

Tucker also noted that the U.S. education system is outdated.

“Only the United States still uses an industrial model of work organization. All of those [higher-performing] countries are using a professional model, and that affects everything they do,” Tucker said.

Duncan said other countries have used programs similar to the Race to the Top program that the Obama administration put in place. Tucker acknowledged that this effort has been successful, and he proposed that the government enact further Race to the Top programs based on the successful strategies of other countries.

“If you go to these other countries and you come back, you say the problem is not that we have a poor system, it’s that we have none,” Tucker said.

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