The good news for American schools is that more of the best and the brightest are becoming teachers. Professors at Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford, the Big Three of advanced teacher education in the U.S., say that their current crop of students is the best in 20 years. The bad news: Many will soon be going into big-city public school systems where up to 50% of teachers drop out after the first year. The rules, regulations, and structures of many schools, as they stand, stifle good teaching. If all of America's children, particularly its inner-city poor, are to have equal opportunity, this must end. In this context, President Bush's new education initiative is a welcome move. But to succeed, some harsh truths must be faced by politicians, unions, teachers, and parents.
Truth be told, the education "crisis" is not a uniform national problem. When polled, most Americans say their children are getting a good education. By most measures, suburban schools do a reasonably good job. So do most private schools. There are problems with low scores in math and science, the result of too few teachers trained in these subjects.
The real crisis is in inner-city public schools and in those Southern and Western states that spend too little on education. The K-12 students in big cities are mostly poor immigrant children, many of whom are illiterate in their first language, and poor children from troubled homes. Teachers say their students can't pay attention, show little respect for authority, rarely see books at home, and are vague about time. These schools often end up with the worst teachers, who are tired, unqualified, uncaring--or just marking time until retirement. Fixing problem schools means dealing with both sides of the learning equation: students and teachers.
In a special report, BusinessWeek has compiled a list of what can be done (page 66). These are its main conclusions:
-- End union seniority. Unions insist on seniority policies on pay, promotion, and placement that undermine good teaching. Many of the youngest teachers quickly burn out because they are often sent to the worst schools, thanks to seniority rules. Principals can't pay higher salaries for math and science teachers--desperately scarce--thanks to seniority. Teacher pay is based on years put in, not performance, thanks to seniority.
-- Extend the school day and year. This will cost money, but it is a no-brainer. The U.S. devotes the shortest amount of time to teaching its children of any advanced country. Given its heterogeneous students, America actually needs more time to teach the skills necessary to succeed in a complex high-tech world. One solution would be to extend the school year and pay teachers more.
-- Make students and schools accountable. Many inner-city children need a structured environment that is predictable and rewarding. Testing, coordinated with curriculum, can help. It may not be the best way to teach abstract or creative thinking, but it provides focus and discipline. And standardized exams provide one measure for a school's performance over time. President Bush is right on this.
-- Expand choice. Polls show that vouchers are highly popular with parents of inner-city children, but public charter schools and privately run public schools also provide choice. Without traditional union and administrative rules, they offer longer school days, uniforms, a disciplined classroom environment, and enthusiastic teachers. They also provide smaller schools and class sizes. The rich and the middle class have educational choices. The poor should have choices, too.
America's education crisis cannot be ended by teacher-bashing. Nor can it be solved solely by pouring billions more into school systems that are essentially broken. Funding focused on problem schools that are made accountable, driven by performance, and offer choices is a pragmatic solution.