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How to Fix US Education

The remedies are deceptively simple to state and devilishly difficult to make happen.


Last week I commented on the decline of U.S. education and the causes of that decline: the teachers unions, our decentralized, haphazard approach to governance, our diverse student base, uneven teachers and A.D.D students- the list is long.


The real question is:  what can we do to improve this picture? The McKinsey Global Institute, an arm of the global consulting firm (and my alma mater) McKinsey & Company, a few years ago conducted a yearlong study of the world’s best K-12 education systems.  The lessons learned from these systems are straightforward:  (1) get better students to become teachers; (2) develop better teachers through rigorous professional development; and (3) make sure the overall system delivers good instruction to every child.


McKinsey paraphrased these three lessons learned as (1) the quality of the education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers; (2) the only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction and (3) high performance requires every child to succeed.


This seems so simple:  what is holding us back?  Many things, as it happens.  Starting from the top, the US has not done a good job of attracting our best college students into the teaching profession.  Teaching is not seen as a prestigious career, particularly as many more options have opened up for women in the workplace.


The unionization of teaching has had the unfortunate effect of making it a blue collar profession.  In the top performing systems teachers are considered professionals and are compensated at higher levels.  The McKinsey study concluded that wages for US teachers should increase on the order of 20% - 30% to be competitive globally. However, simply raising wages will not be sufficient if teachers are unwilling to trade higher wages for real professionalism, meaning, among other things, that they must give up “automatic “ tenure.


The second “lesson”: that teachers work in effective ways to improve instruction is an area where much good, though scattered, work has been done in the US.  The best of this work has focused on using data to get feedback on what is effective in instruction.  New assessment tools, not simply high stakes tests, have given teachers rich material from which to hone and develop their approach.  Pioneering work in this area has been done in the most effective charter schools such as KIPP and the Brooklyn Success Academy. These approaches are also now making their way into public schools, though the progress of the data-driven approach is still controversial, owing to lack of support from teachers’ unions.


The third lesson from the world’s best systems:  that high performance requires every child to succeed is by far the most difficult to implement in the U.S.  Virtually all of the highest performing countries have a top-down education system with national standards and high stakes assessments mandated for all – with funding flowing from the national government to support these education efforts.  It is also true that most of the highest performing systems, Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, for example, are smaller and much more homogeneous than the U.S.


Partly because of our size but mostly because of our history of funding K-12 education at the state and local level, the US system is a hodge-podge of different standards, different levels of funding, and different levels of achievement.  The US has pockets of excellence, but not consistently good performance across the board.


The Obama Administration has tried to overcome some of those difficulties by its efforts to develop national standards, the so-called “Common Core”, and by using incentive financing through its “Race to the Top” program to encourage alternative models for school development and governance.


 Race to the Top has spurred several innovations and new approaches that hold promise.  New York City’s approach to teacher evaluation and school restructuring is a highly visible test case.  Mayor Bloomberg has taken the problem of non-performing schools to a new level by developing a report card on each school and now on each teacher.  It is gutsy stuff that is pitting the mayor against the powerful teacher’s union.  Watch this closely.  If the union is able to use its considerable political muscle to help elect a Bloomberg successor much more supportive of the union position, the hopes for significant system change will suffer a serious blow.  Already we have seen the teacher’s union in Washington D.C. force out Superintendent Michelle Rhee over her approach to replacing ineffective teachers. 


 New Orleans may offer hope with an entirely new approach.  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina New Orleans decided to make a new start in the K-12 education system by being the first US city to adopt a Charter approach.  Instead of charter schools, New Orleans is a charter district.  This approach gives school leaders more flexibility in hiring and teacher development but holds them accountable for specific improvements in student results. It takes the charter approach to a system level- an innovation which, if effective, could be an important element of positive system change.


Systemic change in U.S. education is extraordinarily difficult – yet we will not improve student outcomes if we do not find models that work. We have a few hopeful approaches, but so far we have not seen demonstrable progress.  Yet demonstrable progress we need if the next generation of students are to have the kind of opportunity of those who have gone before.


Does the US have what it takes?  The jury is out and the clock is ticking.