This past week I had the chance to visit Harvard and be part of the “Learning from the International Experience” conference. First, what an incredible honor for me to get to meet some real giants in the education policy realm, notably Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek. The event centered on the release of a new report called “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete” followed by two days of discussion on the condition of education in the United States and, more importantly, what we might learn from high performing countries to improve.

I’d first say that the results of the study aren’t fresh news by any stretch. The argument that the U.S. education system is floundering and puts the country’s economic health at risk goes back to the industrial revolution. The same argument was used again in the Sputnik era, in the 1980’s with the release of “A Nation at Risk”, and even more recently through the “achievement gap” lens of No Child Left Behind in a McKinsey report. One of the authors of the Harvard paper, education scholar Eric Hanushek, has been hammering at this issue for some time.

The U.S. continues to come up mediocre in these rankings but there are certainly some limitations to their utility, as these pure aggregate average score approaches aren’t taking into account poverty, equity, or social considerations. Also, this data is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the U.S. remains the most vibrant and adaptive economy in the world, most of the top universities in the world are in the U.S., it takes the rest of the world combined to equal the number of patents issued in the U.S. in a single year, and there are (by far) more Nobel Prize winners from the U.S. than any other (acknowledgement to Seton Hall’s Chris Tienken for this list of reminders).

These points should be used to counterbalance the discussion, but we would be foolish to ignore the message of the economists and political scientists that given the global nature of this economy compared to any time in our past we absolutely should be investigating the approaches used by the highest performing systems and pulling them into the playbook for American education.

I must admit I was disappointed by the conclusions of some of the economists at the conference that our reaction to this most recent illustration of U.S. educational mediocrity should be centered around “charter schools,” and “performance pay.” Keep in mind, I am an advocate for increased school choice and compensation reform, but I also realize they only take us so far.

While we should broaden these terms and discussions to consider the possibility of how “school choice” and “strategic compensation” could improve the American system, these do not (at least in my review) seem to be the major drivers in building great schools in looking at the highest performing systems. If the aim of this conference was really “Learning from the International Experience” then we would see lessons around clarity on student outcomes and a subsequent alignment of instruction and measurement. We would also see a hyperfocus on improving the quality of the educator workforce through a variety of approaches. Finally, we see systems that try things and make mistakes, but most importantly keep up the work and learning about getting better.

My takeaway was that we need to keep our eyes on the ball here. Improving schools is about teaching and learning coupled with a process of continuous improvement and innovation. To the degree that school choice and compensation figure into a framework on better teaching, learning, and innovation then they absolutely should be part of the discussion.

Any ideas we glean from other countries has to be considered against the culture of the American education system. In the U.S., our system has a heavy flavor of accountability in the form of standardized measures and (increasingly) individual measures of effectiveness. Our focus on accountability is creating what I’d consider an “over-reaction” from some in the education community who fantasize about an end to accountability and measures. I’d venture that this is pure fantasy and this over-reaction discounts that we do have much better performance data about our schools than we have had at any point in the past and this data, though admittedly imperfect, is also useful.

To take the lessons from the international experience and graft it into the American system, our question going forward should be “how do we get the right yin/yang mix of teaching-learning-innovation with accountability?”