By Miles Unterreiner
Education reform, as politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle for once agree, is one of the most pressing issues now confronting the American people. The data are at best discouraging and at worst dire; American children at both the primary and secondary levels continue, as they have for the last decade, to fall behind their OECD peers on internationally administered assessments of student learning. The frightening realities of American deficiencies in math, science, and engineering are terrifying less per se than in our seemingly supine acceptance of them as matters already decided and unlikely, or perhaps simply impossible, to change.
Problems are widespread; solutions, however, appear less forthcoming. Forestalled by a bewildering array of obstacles ranging from union recalcitrance to a burgeoning conservative anti-intellectualism to a prevailing cultural disregard for the intelligent and driven, education reform has made and continues to make little progress in this country. This must change, and change now, should the United States wish to remain globally competitive in a world where a technically skilled workforce is not an advantageous luxury but a sine qua non at the heart of a productive economy, a competent and educated citizenry, and even, as the Reagan Administration reported as early as 1983, an impregnable and secure national defense.
The system, however, is not so far gone as to be entirely lost. But the nation must commit, and commit now, to a dedicated regimen of comprehensive and thorough reform. If it does not, the consequences will be immediate, they will be debilitating, and they will be damaging to the long-term interests and extant international preeminence of this country.
So from whom is reform to originate, and how is it to succeed?
Experience has made clear that any sustained effort in the field of education must be made at the national or federal level by an alliance of state and non-state actors. Amplified government spending alone is an inadequate remedy, a nostrum where society seeks a panacea; we suffer from deeper wounds than monetary insufficiency.
Leadership must come from the federal government, but it need not (though it may) be fiscal in nature. President Obama’s recently enacted Race to the Top initiative augurs well for the future of education reform; by distributing federal dollars to the states through a competitive mechanism whereby funding is allocated based on the extent to which state legislatures develop innovative programs to advance and sustain increased student achievement, Race to the Top harnesses the dynamic power of American federalism – what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once termed the “laboratory of democracy” – to encourage healthy competition between states, with the end result transformed schools and students around the country.
President Obama and his successors, however, can and must do much more than delegate responsibility to state governments, many of which lack the tax base, leadership, and human capital to implement necessary reforms alone. The president, and hopefully a bipartisan coalition in Congress, could begin by fundamentally restructuring the methods by which public school teachers and administrators are compensated. First, excellent teachers must be paid a great deal more – Michelle Rhee, the brilliant and hard-charging chancellor of the D.C. public school system, has calculated that some of her teachers’ salaries ought to be well into the triple figures through grants by private corporations, for example. Increased teacher pay would both enhance the prestige of, and attract the finest talent to, a profession Americans have long viewed, without reason, as a refuge for the burned-out and second-rate. (As the New York Times explained in a recent profile piece on Chinese teachers completing exchange internships in the United States, teaching is widely viewed as a noble profession in China, and teaching positions are highly sought after – a social reality that reflects that nation’s great dedication to achievement in the classroom, and an ideal it would behoove us to emulate.) Second, poorly performing teachers must be made accountable – that is to say, the labor market for teachers must be rendered a great deal more flexible, and the labor unions for teachers a great deal less powerful. Antiquated compensation schemes whereby pay grade is disengaged from performance – by calculating remuneration based instead on years worked, degree attained, or tenure held – render public education quite nearly the only vocation wherein it is possible to perform worse and earn more than an equally skilled colleague.
Second, nationalization and standardization of middle and high school curricula would help combat and eventually obliterate enduring discrepancies between city and suburb and between rich state and poor state, providing administrators with a clearly defined mechanism for evaluating each and every student in every part of the country. We can no longer afford the patchwork of state and local funding capabilities, differing state and local testing standards, and incompatible state and local grading systems dating from our archaic past. Competitive federally awarded grants to the best-performing states, competitive national scholarships granted to the best-performing students in the tradition of the National Merit program, and a uniform national framework for assessing student learning will help identify both the highest and lowest achieving, enabling experts to deliver targeted aid when and where it is needed. This would of course require intrusive federal involvement in what has historically been almost purely a state and local matter and would likely generate significant political opposition. But Washington or Texas or Vermont alone cannot compete with China or India. It is time we threw the resources of the entire nation behind the future of our kids.
Third, President Obama would not do poorly to follow the example of another academic powerhouse, the Federal Republic of Germany, in strengthening America’s vocational training system – the technical and community colleges that provide today’s workers with the skills necessary to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. While German solutions may not be entirely apposite to the American condition, I believe we would do well to examine the advantages of the German system in reformulating a national approach to education. Germany, unlike the United States, assesses its students early to determine their interests and talents – then, instead of forcing all students into a standardized high school curriculum that may or may not interest or suit them, it encourages each student to pursue secondary education in one of multiple settings. A robust system of technical training schools prepares some for the trades; those interested in four-year university study at one of the country’s fine Gymnasiums; still others pursue secondary education in a mixed setting that somewhat parallels the typical American high school experience.
Fourth, Congress could ease restrictions on temporary visas for talented foreign students interested in study in the US, award financial aid to international students admitted to US universities, and facilitate exchange programs for elite students from abroad. An infusion of international talent would both enhance the American economy, should such students choose to remain here, and open the eyes of a complacent populace to the hard work and skill of the world’s most brilliant young minds.
But the vast majority of education reform must, of course, be conducted at the level of the individual, ordinary citizen – the parents and the students for whom the system labors. A revivified ethos of “ask not what your schools can do for your children, but what you can do for your children and your schools” would go a long way towards fixing perhaps the two most fundamental problems facing the American educational system today: student apathy and parent disengagement. Excellent, respected, well-paid teachers freed from union constraints; an improved and restructured vocational and technical training apparatus; recalibration of the national immigration framework to allow for easier access to US schools and universities by talented foreign students; nationalization of the educational curriculum to eliminate ingrained disparities between states and regions; an increased fiscal emphasis on the promotion of top-tier excellence and academic achievement – none of these can or will succeed without endorsement by a critical mass of students and their families. China, India, Japan, Singapore, and the countries of the European Union may or may not possess superior educational structures, but what they do have is a nearly universal societal respect for education, achievement, and hard work in school that a crucial segment of Americans seems to have neglected in favor of athletic skill, pop-star popularity, and the glorification of mediocrity. This must change, and change now.