5 Ways to Save America’s Education System

Uniforms, pay-for-performance and other ideas could pave the way to school success.

Of all the factors that go into sustaining a vibrant culture, a thriving economy and a conscientious electorate perhaps none is more important than having a solid education system. One look at the state of ours leaves little mystery as to why America is wanting in all three of those areas.

Attempts to spend our way out of the problem have been unsuccessful. The U.S. shells out more on education than any country besides Switzerland—an average of nearly $150,000 per student over the course of a 13-year school career, more than double what we spent 40 years ago. But we have little to show for it.

In 2009, the U.S. ranked 17th in reading, 31st in math and 23rd in science, bested in all categories by countries like Estonia, Iceland and Slovenia. China ranked first across the board.

Meanwhile, the education gap is widening between rich and poor, and barely half of high-school students in America’s largest cities graduate on time.

Our country is facing a crisis of education, and like any other crisis—be it an earthquake or a terrorist attack—this crisis requires a unified response that pushes the envelope and makes tough, and sometimes controversial decisions.

Here are five places we can start:

1. Invest in good teachers.
You know the old saying you get what you pay for? Well, when it comes to teachers what we pay is pretty mediocre. The starting salary for a teacher in Pennsylvania is around $35,000, on average, which is less than a manager at Taco Bell. There’s been a push lately from some quarters to raise teacher pay. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks teachers should start out making nearly twice that much, with the ability to earn six figures. Whether or not you agree with that, it’s important to take into consideration that schools face much stiffer competition from other employment sectors than they did in the past. Women in particular have much broader career options than they did 40 years ago, when many of the brightest female college graduates were diverted into teaching jobs.

But investing in teachers doesn’t just mean paying them more. It also means recruiting better ones. According to McKinsey & Company nearly half of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes. In high-poverty areas like Philadelphia, just 14 percent come from the top of their classes.

Finland requires all of its teachers to have master’s degrees, and accepts just 10 percent of college graduates into its teacher training program. In the U.S., we have a surplus of teachers. Finland’s government plays a larger role in monitoring demand and regulating supply to ensure teachers that complete training have jobs. (I can hear the collective moan from conservatives.)

Earlier this week President Obama took a step in the right direction when he proposed a new program designed to bring the nation’s level of teaching up a notch. The initiative, Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching (Respect) budgets $5 billion to boost teacher training, evaluate effectiveness and tie pay to performance.

2. Hold bad teachers accountable.
Just as it’s important to hire and reward good teachers, we need to make it easier for schools to address poor teacher performance. The days of the infamous “rubber rooms” need to end. According to a 2008 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, “only two states require any evidence of teacher effectiveness to be considered as part of tenure decisions. All other states permit districts to award tenure virtually automatically.”

Pennsylvania, the NCTQ notes, “lacks any meaningful process to evaluate cumulative effectiveness in the classroom before teachers are awarded tenure,” which happens automatically after three years.

Rethinking the merits of automatic tenure will likely lead to a showdown with teachers’ unions, but some union officials appear ready to at least consider reforms.

Writing for the journal Education Next more than a decade ago, Adam Urbanski, a vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers, had already recognized the problem:

“Just like today’s schools, teacher unions today are stuck in the past. They still expend most of their energy and resources on defending a very small minority of troubled members; they still define their mission narrowly in terms of bread-and-butter issues; and they still confine themselves to reacting to management’s provocations. Strong unions have secured important professional rights and benefits for teachers, but their power must now be harnessed to create a more genuine profession for teachers and more-effective schools for all students.”

3. Stop teaching to the test.
While talented teachers are critical to injecting some new energy into our schools, without engaged kids, it’s all for naught. Unfortunately our current system of education, which is heavily fragmented and too focused on standardized testing, is uninspiring because it often lacks the ability to relate class lessons to real-world problems.

The failings of standardized testing are well documented. Under George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind initiative, “teaching to the test” has become standard operating procedure and has led to a number of high-profile scandals.

This weekend, the Inquirer reported that 13 Philadelphia schools are under investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for alleged cheating on PSSA exams in which teachers and even principals were complicit. Beyond these obvious problems, teaching kids to cram fistfuls of information into their heads and hold it there long enough to regurgitate into a series of test bubbles with a number-two pencil can hardly be called education.

4. Consider an integrated approach to subject matter.
Yet even under the best of circumstances our curriculum—particularly in high schools—is designed in such a way that when it comes to teaching kids, one hand hardly knows what the other one is doing. Subjects are taught in vacuums with little if any coordination between teachers and no attention paid to the many places where disciplines like history and science and mathematics overlap.

Theories of teaching advanced by “curriculum reformers” like Heidi Hayes Jacob and James A. Beane—who reject “departmentalized” learning—call for a more multidisciplinary approach where knowledge is an open-ended goal that benefits from a fluid approach to learning.

Such an approach may or may not be right for America’s schools but it deserves serious study.

5. Require uniforms at all public schools.
This one is a no-brainer; and it’s also bound to raise some hackles. If you had suggested uniforms to me, a public-school kid, when I was 15, I would have leapt out of my parachute pants and cried Fascism. Now that I’m “older and wiser” (and clothes cost a lot more), I think the benefits of requiring kids to wear a single, modest outfit to school each day far outweigh any potential drawbacks (if there are any at all).

School has always been a social gathering place where young people flex their budding egos and strut like peacocks in their Rocawear and Abercrombie & Fitch (or whatever the kids are wearing these days). But as I’ve already noted, we are experiencing a crisis of education, and fashion can be a huge distraction for kids who should be learning not strutting. (In a perfect world, high schools would probably be segregated by gender as well, but I’ll save that argument for another time.)

Clothes also amplify class distinctions, inspire the creation of cliques, and just plain tap family resources that could be better spent on things that might actually expand young minds. There is plenty of time to be fashionable after school, on the weekends, and pretty much all summer long. But algebra class shouldn’t be one of them.

It’s been suggested by critics of uniforms that requiring all kids to wear the same thing will stifle creativity and individuality, but Britain has required uniforms for all primary and secondary students since the time of King Henry VIII, and that country’s schools gave us Roger Waters, Lucian Freud and Shakespeare. I say we take our chances.