Herr Doktor Data

Meet the German scientist who is shaping education reform from West Virginia to Tokyo. My profile of Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education guru, is in the new Atlantic.

As always, there is one missing link—one point that I failed to work into the story. So that’s what a blog is for! The story never ends. So the missing point is this: Schleicher’s conclusions about what makes a great school system do not fall neatly into either the reform or the teachers’ union camp. He is skeptical of performance pay for teachers, for example, but he is also insistent that poverty and immigration are not insurmountable barriers to high-level learning—and he is convinced that great systems must find, train and support excellent teachers and principals.

This complexity of his has three important implications, I think. First, it makes Schleicher infinitely more powerful. Both sides can—and do—claim him as their own, so he has become very hard to dismiss (unlike, say, Michelle Rhee, Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten or almost any other demagogue you can think of in America’s polarized education debate.)

Secondly, it means Schleicher is probably right. The truth is usually complex.

But thirdly, and paradoxically, this nuance makes his mission much harder. At the moment, education policy makers can pick and choose from Schleicher’s recommendations like cruise ship passengers at a midnight buffet. Don’t want waffles? They don’t fit your political or emotional needs? Then skip it! Bring on the bacon! I have yet to find a state that is intentionally benchmarking itself to international standards in all the ways that Schleicher suggests. And yet it is the interaction of these magical ingredients that matters most—not the existence of a few best practices in isolation.

So there’s the challenge. If you think you know of a state or a district that is really, truly trying to holistically follow the world’s lead, please let me know. I am on the hunt.

EducationAmanda Ripley