Former IBM (IBM) CEO Louis Gerstner, chairman of the Teaching Commission, the group of educators and business leaders he founded in 2003 to promote educational reform, spoke to reporters on Apr. 5 about his campaign to boost teacher quality in America (see BW Online, "Lou Gerstner's Schoolroom Quest"). BusinessWeek's Aaron Bernstein attended, and he provides these excerpts of the conversation in which Gerstner lays out his key arguments for reform based on his contention that "one element is needed to execute great teaching, and that is great teachers":
There's a rot in our country, destroying it from the inside. Millions of kids are being left behind in our schools every day. This will destroy our economic vitality and the leadership position in ideas.
Public schools have been failing for decades, and we know it. Yet we do very little to fix the problem. It will be hard for the educational system if we wait any longer, because we'll have two or three generations without the skills needed to compete in a global-skills battle.
There's a huge gap between minorities and the poor over and above average-income people. That gap more than anything else threatens the vitality of our country.
A lot of teachers today aren't prepared, and they're not paid adequately to motivate them. For example, 38% of teachers in 7th- to 12th-grade math don't have the background or a certificate to teach math. Can you imagine what would happen if we did a study that found nearly 40% of airline pilots didn't have adequate training to fly a plane?
Teachers ought to be treated like all other professionals and get rewarded if they do their job well. That would help bring in new talent. We had a captive labor force for our schools until the 1960s. Before that, highly educated women could be teachers or nurses, and not much else. We underpaid that labor force, and now we no longer have it since women have so many more options.
How much higher does teacher pay need to be to clear the labor market for more talented people? I don't know exactly, but the average incentive compensation in other fields is roughly 20% to 35%. We want to just get started, so we need to make a formal commitment to higher merit pay.
The deal we're offering to teachers is, we'll pay you more if you get paid on performance. It should be potentially tied to test scores. The public doesn't like using only test scores, so we need to look at other measures, too, like evaluations by principals and peers, or how well students work in teams, dropout rates, attendance, many measures.
We have come up with four recommendations: One, attract more qualified teachers to the profession. Two, teachers should be paid better if they do better. Three, teachers need more development opportunities, to develop their skills. Four, teaching works best where the school leadership can pick and choose, and move out poor performers while rewarding good ones.
I'll accept that it's hard to measure student performance, but it's unacceptable to say the opposite -- that you can't measure what students learn at all.