Available online at the Atlantic is an article by Joel Klein, The Failure of American Schools. It is somewhat long, but extremely articulate and methodical in stating the dilemmas, as Klein sees them, facing education and education reform in the U.S. Klein was the chancellor of New York City’s school system for eight years and uses several antidotes to illustrate the points he makes. We highly recommend reading the full article, available Here, but we have pasted below some of the points which really “jumped out” at us. Incidentally, we are pasting a sentence from his last paragraph first, as it is a reminder to us in Tennessee – a reminder that Tennessee’s children need politicians with the courage to lead in education reform and citizens willing to be engaged and demand education reform.
Time is running out. Without political leadership willing to take risks and build support for “radical reform,” and without a citizenry willing to insist on those reforms, our schools will continue to decline.
Nearly three decades after A Nation at Risk, the groundbreaking report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible—even though we have doubled our spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K–12 public education. On America’s latest exams (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science, or reading. Our high-school graduation rate continues to hover just shy of 70 percent, according to a 2010 report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, and many of those students who do graduate aren’t prepared for college. ACT, the respected national organization that administers college-admissions tests, recently found that 76 percent of our high-school graduates “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.”
While America’s students are stuck in a ditch, the rest of the world is moving ahead. The World Economic Forum ranks us 48th in math and science education. On international math tests, the United States is near the bottom of industrialized countries (the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and we’re in the middle in science and reading. Similarly, although we used to have one of the top percentages of high-school and college graduates among the OECD countries, we’re now in the basement for high-school and the middle for college graduates.
In short, politicians—especially Democratic politicians—generally do what the unions want. And the unions, in turn, are very clear about what that is. They want, first, happy members, so that those who run the unions get reelected; and, second, more members, so their power, money, and influence grow. As Albert Shanker, the late, iconic head of the UFT, once pointedly put it, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”
Yet, rather than create a system that attracts and rewards excellent teachers—and that imposes consequences for ineffective or lazy ones—we treat all teachers as if they were identical widgets and their performance didn’t matter.
The response, often from friends as well as opponents, was that we were unrealistic: complex systems don’t change easily, impatience is immature, and directly challenging the educational establishment is not a winning strategy. “You need to be more collaborative and less controversial,” we were repeatedly admonished. That’s bad advice. Collaboration is the elixir of the status-quo crowd. Consider one of the most cherished mantras in public education today—“We’ll never fix education until we fix poverty.” This lets the school system off the hook: “We can’t do too much with these poor kids, so don’t blame us (but give us more money).” Texas and California, for example, have very similar demographics. Nevertheless, even though Texas spends slightly less per pupil than does California, it outperforms California on all four national tests, across demographic groups. The gap is around a year’s worth of learning. That’s big.
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, has shown that, while some teachers get a year and a half’s worth of learning into a year, others get in only half a year’s worth of learning with essentially the same students. Imagine the cumulative impact of the best teachers over 13 years of elementary and secondary education.
But we still won’t get to where we need to go unless we’re prepared to do three difficult, but essential, things: rebuild our entire K–12 system on a platform of accountability; attract more top-flight recruits into teaching; and use technology very differently to improve instruction.
Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business. Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands. Public education lacks both kinds of accountability. It is essentially a government-run monopoly. Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. A full-scale transition from a government-run monopoly to a competitive marketplace won’t happen quickly. But that is no reason not to begin introducing more competition.
To support effective choice, moreover, we need to provide real funding equity: the money must be for the child, not the school.
The second big thing we need to change is the people we attract into teaching. A rational compensation scheme is critical to fixing this core human-capital weakness: rather than just pay for longevity and lifetime benefits, we must reward excellence and enable the system to meet its needs. If, going forward, we eliminated all the automatic raises and promises of huge lifetime benefits, we’d have an enormous amount of money to devote to merit pay, hardship-assignment incentives, and recruiting in subjects where we have shortages. If we could front-load compensation, new teachers could get as much as $80,000 by year three or four.
Last, to shake up the system, we must change how we use technology to deliver instruction. The present resistance to innovation is breathtaking. But one of the best things we could do is hire fewer teachers and pay more to the ones we hire. And, as in any other field, technology can help get us there.
More broadly, we need to foster a fundamental shift from a top-down, one-size-fits-all culture—mandated class-size reduction, after-school programs, and the like—to a culture that supports innovation.
McKinsey estimates that the benefits of bringing our educational levels up to those of the highest-performing countries would have raised our gross domestic product by about $2 trillion in 2008. By the same token, every year we fail to close that gap is like living with the equivalent of a permanent national recession. Shocking as that may sound, the costs in human terms, to our nation and to the kind of people we aspire to become, will be even greater.