So how do we “save American education?” As a nation we obviously spend a great deal of time diagnosing the problems, while offering a few targeted solutions. But what does comprehensive treatment of the problem really look like.
That’s actually the question that Jay Mathews of The Washington Post recently posed to Mark Tucker, the head of the National Center for Education and the Economy. And Tucker’s answers may surprise some. His top five solutions?
1) Make admissions to teacher training programs more competitive
2) Raise teacher compensation significantly
3) Allow larger class sizes
4) End annual standardized testing
5) Spend more money on students who need more help getting to high standards
It is an interesting collection of recommendations, which Tucker and NCEE offer based on observing what other countries have done to improve their educational offerings. But it begs an important question — are these reforms that the federal government should be leading, or reforms that need to be driven by the states? Can the United States of America really follow the lead of Singapore, a nation no larger than Kentucky?
Yes, it is important we focus on educator effectiveness. That starts with getting the best individuals into our teacher training programs and continues with ensuring schools are able to recruit, retain, and support those truly excellent educators. And yes, we should pay those teachers better, but only after we have developed teacher evaluation systems focused on student achievement measures.
And you will get no disagreement from Eduflack on the need to spend more money on the students who need the most help. The time has clearly come to overhaul our school finance systems to ensure that scarce tax dollars are going where they are needed the most. We shouldn’t be funding schools based simply on an historical perspective, doing what we do because it worked a few decades ago. We need to fund our schools in real time, recognizing that all schools — be they traditional public, magnet, technical, or charter — are treated fairly and equitably when it comes to funding formulas and per-pupil expenditures.
But eliminate testing? While I like Tucker’s idea of three national exams that identify student performance at the end of elementary school, 10th grade, and 12th grade, do we really believe that is enough? Is one test between kindergarten and high school really sufficient, particularly when we know a third of our elementary school students are reading below grade level and the real trouble spot for our schools is the middle school years?
Instead of cutting back on the number of tests, we should first look to use our testing data more effectively. Empower teachers with formative and summative assessment data to tailor their instructional approaches to meet student needs. Let the data guide what happens in the classroom. We need to change the mindset that the test is the end product. It needs to be the starting line, providing educators with a strong diagnosis for how to proceed with the work at hand for a given school year.
That’s how we can save American education. Data-driven decision making. Evidence-based instruction. By better understanding and applying the research, we have the power to focus on effective teachers, getting the resources where they are most needed, and actually improving student achievement. Without it, we will just continue to feel our way in the dark.