America Left Behind

Economic success begins in the classroom—which does not bode well for the future of the U.S. economy. American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science, compared with students in 30 industrialized countries, and the Broad Foundation estimates $192 billion in lost income and taxes due to dropouts each year. So how do we fix American education? To answer that question—the second in our quarterly Fix This seriesTheir conversation has been condensed and edited.

What do we need to do to get things working?

Gerstner: We know what it takes to fix the public schools. We need to do four things that are so self-evident it’s hard to believe we’re still debating it. First, we need high academic standards and a curriculum that will allow our kids to meet them. Two, we need to have a system to measure whether the kids are meeting those standards. Three, we need far better teachers in our schools. Four, more time on task. We need a longer school day and a longer school year. Those four things are not to argue against, so why are we not making progress? We’re not making progress because we’re not executing.

Cahill: The rest of the world has gone faster and further. They’re executing on a vision and a plan. We are still talking about whether or not young people can achieve who live in poverty, whether we’re going to have a system that has high expectations for everyone.

Spellings: We do know what to do, but we’re really, as a country, not serious. Today about half our minority kids get out of high school on time, and we think that’s acceptable. If half the lunches that were served today in schools across America were tainted, people would be outraged.

Does it matter what is taught? Does the emphasis have to shift?

Cahill: It’s the what, how, and who of education. The what has to be high levels of knowledge or deep levels of knowledge, but most importantly the ability to apply that knowledge in new and unfamiliar situations. It isn’t solely in the old way of teaching, it’s actually being able to inquire, to know science, and be able to use evidence to make decisions to problem-solve. We need people who can think logically, quantitatively, but in addition can understand data. We don’t have to go very far from our financial crisis to see that every citizen needs to understand a level of mathematics.

Kamen: Education is not filling a pail, it’s lighting a fire. And you can build the best system and the best process, but you can’t open up a kid’s head and pour this stuff in. What FIRST is all about is the recognition that, assuming we have good schools and assuming we have good teachers, we still have another major problem in this country. It’s a culture problem. Both parties are running around saying it’s about jobs, it’s about jobs. Kids need more than jobs. They need careers, they need passion to solve real problems. FIRST started with 20 companies adopting 20 some high schools 20 years ago, and now we have teams that came to this year’s championship from 60 countries. We have 22,000 schools that sent teams. When you look at the data on 20 years worth of comparative schools, no matter where they’re from, rich or poor, when you look at kids that have been through a FIRST experience, that have met with real scientists and real engineers when they were still young, their perception of what’s possible was permanently changed.

Steve, I haven’t met many parents who want dumb kids, yet as you lay out in your book it seems that the barriers to really changing things remain significant.

Brill: I’m sort of the new guy on the block here. I happened to have stumbled into something called the Rubber Room where they put the minority of the minority of the minority of teachers in New York City whom they’ve identified as completely incompetent. They were kept there on payrolls for three to five years while they awaited hearings. And that really was just the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is that you have 3.2 million teachers in this country—it’s the largest occupation in the U.S. other than retail sales clerks—and yet it is the only occupation in the U.S. where performance basically doesn’t count. What counts is how long you’ve been breathing.

What’s changed in the last few years is charter schools, which are public schools paid for by taxpayer dollars, except they actually spend less money per student than conventional public schools. And these charter schools have the longer class day, the longer school year, and intensely dedicated teachers. Up in Harlem there’s a building where on one side of the building there’s a conventional public school, and unfortunately those kids perform the way the stereotype would say. On the other side of the building—the same community, in fact often the siblings of the kids on the public school side—kids are performing the same way as kids in Scarsdale, one of the wealthiest suburbs of New York. It doesn’t prove that all charter schools are good. It doesn’t prove anything other than the fact that we don’t have to tolerate this problem. We can fix it.

Is that scalable?

Brill: You need to bend the unions to rewrite their contracts. If they rewrote their contracts, there is a way you could pay teachers, especially beginner teachers, a lot more money without spending any extra taxpayer dollars—for example, if you didn’t give teachers in New York City 13 personal and sick days off during a 34-week school year. I mean, who gets that anywhere else?

Gerstner: We will not fix the schools in this country if the teachers don’t come to the table and say we’re going to lead this change, and we’re going to have a different compact with parents. I think teachers can get there. But we’re lacking the leadership at this point.

Would we be better off or worse off if we had national standards?

Cahill: Optimistically, we now have common core standards that 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted in reading, writing literacy, and in mathematics. This is the first time we have a road map that can be a guide for teachers to build off of and that actually is telling us where you are in the country. These are internationally benchmarked standards, just like you have in South Korea or in Finland, and they will require a level of professional engagement in teaching that we haven’t asked for before.

Spellings: Figuring out what we want kids to know and designing a curriculum around it, that’s the easy part. The hard part is the millions of teachers who have to be taught how to convey that.

Brill: It’s a political challenge, too. Remember that you can have the 45 states, but there’s an element within Secretary Spelling’s party that doesn’t really like the idea of national standards or national interference at all. In fact, it wants to abolish the Education Dept.

Spellings: But here’s the problem. Right now we have people running around this country whining about how rigorous No Child Left Behind is, how demanding and unfair, how punitive it is to have kids reading and ciphering on grade level—basic minimum grade level competency, and we are so far short that it’s embarrassing.

What’s the role of business in this equation, besides being a sponsor for your teams?

Kamen: Irwin Jacobs, the former chairman of Qualcomm, said we bring kids from Southern California for a field trip and we bring them to the parking lot. We don’t take them into the building. We say, “You see all of these beautiful cars? That’s what our engineers drive, that’s why you’ve got to stay in school.” The technology community in this country gets an A+ for creating so many things we take for granted—MRIs, CAT scans, and computers we have on our hip. But the technology community gets a C for having a voice in the public.

Gerstner: I really applaud what Dean’s doing, and I think there are some incredible programs. But at the end of the day, we’re there four, five hours a week. Our people come in, they provide mentoring, they provide programs, but those kids are in front of their teachers for 38 weeks.

Spellings: We need businesspeople to be on school boards, to do that very tough systemic reform that has been done in business and industry for the last several decades. It is going to be excruciatingly difficult.

Is there a way to fix our education system with the union remaining intact?

Brill: Yeah, in fact it may be the only way. Some of the union leaders are very smart, and they sure know how to fix the contracts. But if you just wipe out the whole structure of dealing with thousands or tens of thousands of teachers in the school system, the structure of communicating with them, it’s the equivalent of going into Iraq—sorry for that [example]—and basically eliminating the infrastructure, firing the army, firing all the bureaucracies, firing everybody. That really doesn’t work out so well because you’ve got nothing left. More important, we cannot confuse the union and union officeholders with teachers. Most teachers don’t want to be in a profession where they’re just supposed to breathe for 20 years.

Gerstner: It’s too easy, particularly in the business community, to blame the unions. The unions have been a problem, but a lot of people have been a problem. We don’t want the union to go away. We want the union to morph into what it really needs to be, which is a professional organization like we have in engineering, like we have in law. A group of people who care about the quality of their representatives and demanding performance and fighting for great careers.

Do any of you see anything in teaching methodology that can improve the quality of education?

Spellings: Absolutely. The technology is before us to basically have a customized education solution for every kid in the land.

How does that square with national standards?

Cahill: Say you’re a teacher teaching fourth grade. Most people understand you learn fractions in the fourth grade, right? But there are kids in that class who maybe have a deficit in that they don’t understand subtraction. With technology, a teacher can both assess that quickly and help that young person get customized lessons so they’re not then falling more behind in fourth grade, more behind in fifth grade.

Gerstner: Public school education is a 19th century model of the sage upon the stage. The teacher’s the worker. What we need to do is make the student the worker and the teacher the facilitator, and when a student demonstrates that he or she has shown proficiency in a subject, that student can move onto other things.

Brill: There’s something that hasn’t been said, and that is that teaching is really hard. It’s a lot of really hard, grind-it-out work. Grinding it out in the sense of just making sure you’re making eye contact. Making sure that you know you’re really planning your lesson and then, after you’ve finished a lesson, you reevaluate what you did and what went right and what went wrong. I spent a day at the KIPP school in Manhattan, which as everyone knows is one of the best of the charter networks. I said to Dave Levin, the co-founder, you must feel great about this, you guys are doing great. And he says, “No, I feel lousy. Why don’t you come with me.” So we walked down the hall and stood in the back of his classroom for 10 minutes. He wrote down a bunch of things in his notebook, we went outside of the door, and he said that teacher, who’s a wonderful, gifted teacher, made five really terrible mistakes in the five minutes we were there. She turned her back to write something on the blackboard—you never do that. She hasn’t been checking the writing that’s been up on the bulletin board since the day before yesterday, god forbid. He listed these little things and he said, what this job is about is a thousand of those things, not about some kind of silver bullet.

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