“The fact that we still have large numbers of low income and minority kids who are not achieving at levels commensurate with their counterparts is still, to me, the number one problem in this country we need to reckon with and haven’t done nearly as much as we need to.” – USA

As Asia Society’s head of education, Tony Jackson is responsible for carrying out the organization’s mission (worth noting here: Asia Society is the leading educational organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context. Across the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, the Society provides insight, generates ideas, and promotes collaboration to address present challenges and create a shared future.”). But day-to-day, Jackson is working on making that ambitious mission a practical reality. For the past nine years, he has led the development of Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network, an effort within the Asia Society-led Partnership for Global Learning to create a network of small, effective, internationally-themed secondary schools across the country. The network now has 34 schools in seven states.

Jackson and the educators he’s worked with have learned a great deal from this endeavor, and are now shifting the program’s focus to expand the reach of their proven curricula and assessement tools, along with their experience, to benefit a larger number of schools.

We talked to Jackson recently about what American (and other) schools can learn from Asian education, and what he believes will drive meaningful reform. As Jackson notes, “We need, as a nation, to think about how we are going to make some big changes, and to look to other countries as manifestations of different systems, and also to their history of going from dysfunctional to functional education systems. In other words – it can be done. It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to be disruptive, but we can’t not do this.”

What do you see as the key issues in education today?

I see two key issues we need to solve in education, and if we don’t, it’s at our peril. First is the achievement gap. The fact that we still have large numbers of low income and minority kids who are not achieving at levels commensurate with their counterparts is still, to me, the number one problem in this country we need to reckon with and haven’t done nearly as much as we need to. We can see from examples around the world that it’s not an intractable problem, that there are ways of raising up the achievement level of groups that haven’t performed well in the past that we could emulate – or design our own if we had the will to do so. It’s not a matter of not knowing how. In my view, it’s a matter of manifesting the will, resources, smart thinking and systemic changes that would allow that to happen.

The second key issue is the notion of developing 21st century skills, but as we think of it more broadly, and I think more accurately, the notion that the world has changed forever, and what students need to know in order to be able to be successful, that what we generally call global competence, is as essential as what we might have thought of in the past as academic prowess. It is not the case that you can be successful without having some sense of how the world works and how you fit in it. You must also have the knowledge, skills and dispositions that are called for both in terms of the way in which the global economy works right now and quite frankly, life in the civic environment of the world. As a citizen of the world, one needs to be successful and make a strong contribution.

These two intertwined issues – both making sure that all students are achieving at high levels (achievement gap), as well as ensuring that all students have the opportunity to learn the kind of knowledge and skills that this world we live in now requires (opportunity gap) — are the imperatives for American education and what we’re focusing on at Asia Society.

You have a unique take on 21st century skills – tell us about that.

I would say that the content and the way in which those skills are used and manifested is important. For example, problem-solving skills are critical, but it also matters that kids know how to frame the right kinds of problems – those of the greatest urgency in the world today. Being able to frame a problem within a global context, solve it using global resources and create an argument that takes into consideration the audiences one would have to address to convince or enlighten – those are all important considerations that go beyond problem-solving. This means problem-solving skills that focus on the key issues in the world today, and then use those as a basis for the students’ learning.

What role does technology play in improving education outcomes?

To be well educated, one must be conversant and able to use a variety of technologies at a high level. Technological literacy is absolutely critical, and will be more so going forward. It can be a divider, but also can be a real driver of equity, because it does create more personalized learning opportunities for students.

Social networking is one of the real break-throughs in connecting students globally.
It’s one thing to prepare to be in a global environment, it’s another thing to actually be part of that environment. It allows the world to become real for students. Technology is ultimately a tool, though, not an outcome.  The ultimate technology we want to develop is kids’ minds.  

What can we learn from countries with the highest performing education systems?

If you look at Singapore, for example, which has high levels of achievement on PISA and other assessments, there is little variability between schools such that, to a large extent, almost all kids are achieving at those high levels. The way they’ve done that is by having very systemic approaches to their education system whereby all students have high quality teachers, tech resources and extra help if needed. The curriculum itself is strong and expectations for all students are equally high. These are the kinds of things we can learn from and these approaches are certainly adaptable here. If we approach education here with the same systematic thinking, we could achieve much greater outcomes for all students. Singapore believes that in order to be a world-class country, all the citizens must be part of the thinking economy that we now have, and therefore it is in their economic interest to make sure that equity and excellence come together. In this country, we say those words, but still allow vast numbers of kids to not develop as a contributing member of society. Will — grounded in the practical realities of economics and social cohesion — is driving Asian countries to making sure all citizens are well educated.

For more on Tony Jackson and his work:



About Tony Jackson

Anthony Jackson is Vice President for Education at Asia Society. He also leads the organization’s Partnership for Global Learning, a national membership network of practitioners and policymakers dedicated to integrating knowledge about Asia and the world as a mainstay of American education.

Before joining Asia Society, Jackson was a Director of the Walt Disney Company’s Disney Learning Partnership, where he designed and oversaw the Creative Learning Communities
network of reforming elementary schools. Dr. Jackson, trained in both developmental psychology and education, is one of the nation’s leading experts on secondary school reform and adolescent development. After a stint on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Science Fellow he became a senior staff member on the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, chaired by George Miller (D-CA). Dr. Jackson later directed the Carnegie Corporation Task Force on the Education of Young Adolescents that produced the seminal Turning Points report, which became a key blueprint for the reform of thousands of middle schools nationwide. He also co-authored the follow-up blueprint Turning Points 2000, which transformed many of the design principles in the
original report into concrete action steps for new and reconstituted secondary schools. Many urban districts are now using Turning Points 2000 to guide secondary school reform initiatives. In 2004, Teachers College Press published the latest book Dr. Jackson co-authored, entitled Making the Most of Middle School: A Field Guide for Parents and Others.

Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Current residence: Pasadena, California
Education:  B.A. UC Berkeley, Psychology; Ph.D  University of Michigan, Combined Program in Education and Psychology
Website I check every day: Asia Society (!)
Person who inspires me most:  My father — just a quiet, dependable man who lived his life serving others in one way or another.
Favorite childhood memory:  Playing in day-long baseball games with my cousins and friends
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): New York
When was the last time you laughed? Why?  This morning over a funny insight from my daughter — not at all uncommon!
Favorite book: Cannary Row by John Steinbeck
Favorite music: Jazz
Your favorite quote or motto:  It takes all kinds

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