Marc Tucker and his National Center on Education and the Economy made a big splash back in 2006 with the publication of “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” a provocative manifesto calling for a radical overhaul of public education in the U.S. Tucker’s central argument was that we are falling far behind other nations because we are stuck in old paradigms about how education should look.

Now, in an update of sorts, Tucker has released “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” a 47-page paper that lays out two major and fundamental steps he believes the U.S. must begin taking immediately. Characteristically forceful and provocative, Tucker lays it out in stark terms:

The nations we have described (Finland, Japan and Singapore, along with Ontario and Shanghai) are either already very high wage countries or want to be very high wage countries. They have all recognized that it will be impossible to justify high relative wages for skills that are no greater than those offered by other people in other parts of the world who are willing to work for less, because we are all competing with each other now. Only those who can offer the world’s highest skill levels and the world’s most creative ideas will be able to justify the world’s highest wages. These nations have also realized that this formulation means that very high wage nations must now abandon the idea that only a few of their citizens need to have high skills and creative capacities. This is a new idea in the world, the idea that all must have an education formerly reserved only for elites. It leads to abandonment of education systems designed to reach their goals by sorting students, by giving only some students intellectually demanding curricula, by recruiting only a few teachers who are themselves educated to high levels, and by directing funding toward the easiest to educate and denying it to those hardest to educate. It is this fundamental change in the goals of education that has been forcing an equally fundamental change in the design of national and provincial education systems.

The second big development follows from the first. No nation can move the vast majority of students to the levels of intellectual capacity and creativity now demanded on a national scale unless that nation is recruiting most of its teachers from the group of young people who are now typically going into the non-feminized professions. Recruiting from that pool requires a nation not just to offer competitive compensation but also to offer the same status in the society that the non-feminized occupations offer, the same quality of professional training and the same conditions of work in the workplace. Doing all that will change everything: the standards for entering teachers colleges, which institutions do the training, who is recruited, the nature of the training offered to teachers, the structure and the amount of their compensation, the way they are brought into the workforce, the structure of the profession itself, the nature of teachers’ unions, the authority of teachers, the way they teach and much more.

I find Tucker’s thoughts on overhauling the teaching force to be the most provocative part of the paper. I’m sure it will raise many hackles, but his assessment of curent realities seems spot-on to me.

Checker Finn is one education deep-thinker who acknowledges that Tucker makes some strong points, but misses the mark by showing too much faith in the possibility of systems reform led by the federal government. Finn argues that the disruptive technology of more choice and a redefined role for states, individual schools and states:

American education surely needs a major overhaul of its education governance before it can successfully put into place the other changes in policy and practice that Marc urges (and that these other countries have and do). And yes, that will lead us away from “local control” as traditionally defined and operationalized in U.S. education…But it will and should lead us not to Washington but to a proper redefinition of the role of states (akin to Canadian provinces) and to the roles of individual schools, parents, and choice. Marc’s biggest blind spot, at least within the context of U.S. education reform today, is his “system knows best, just get the system right” mindset and his dismissal of the potential of competition and choice, properly structured and appropriately accountable, for accelerating the change we need in American education.

So, what do you think? Is a more dominant federal role what’s needed, or something quite the opposite?