Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cutting the Gordian Knot of America's Public Education System

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (12/1/08), Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM and chairman of the Teaching Commission from 2003-2006, summarized his ideas for rescuing the nation’s failing public school system. They are forceful and provocative and merit attention from Obama and his education secretary.

Gerstner disarms his critics by putting America’s school reformation movement in context. “Despite decade after decade of reform efforts, our public K-12 schools have not improved.” That surely includes the efforts of the Teaching Commission that he led for 4 years. “Why,” he asks, “after millions of pages, in thousands of reports, from hundreds of commissions and task forces, financed by billions of dollars, have we failed to achieve any significant progress?”

As Gerstner notes, the problem isn't "what to do," nor is it a failure of commitment. Instead, he believes that “the problem lies with the structure and corporate governance of our public schools. We have over 15,000 school districts in America; each of them, in its own way, is involved in standards, curriculum, teacher selection, classroom rules and so on. This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing a program of fundamental change. While we have islands of excellence as a result of great reform programs, we continually fail to scale up systemic change.”

To transform the school system, he identifies four key elements: 1) Set high academic standards for all of our kids, supported by a rigorous curriculum. 2) Greatly improve the quality of teaching in our classrooms, supported by substantially higher compensation for our best teachers. 3) Measure student and teacher performance on a systematic basis, supported by tests and assessments. 4) Increase "time on task" for all students; this means more time in school each day, and a longer school year.

(Italics are mine to indicate the enormous political challenge these requirements will pose for the Obama administration, even if only a subset is considered).

Who can quarrel with these suggestions? In one form or another, they have been proposed several times over the years, only to die on the vine, as Gerstner himself concedes.

So what can Barack Obama and Arne Duncan do to ensure that it's different this time? As Gerstner sees it, the particular solution he proposes is challenging but doable: a) Abolish all local school districts, saving only 70 from the 20 largest cities in 50 states. b) Establish a set of national standards for a core curriculum comprising, for a start, reading, math, science and social studies. c) Establish a National Skills Day to test every third, sixth, ninth and 12th-grader against the national standards and publish the result. d) Establish national standards for teacher certification and require regular re-evaluations of teacher skills. Teacher skills are to be judged against one criterion only: advances in student learning. Those who succeed must be able to earn well in excess of $100,000 per year while underperforming teachers must be purged. e) Extend the school day and the school year to effectively add 20 more days of schooling for all K-12 students.

Can such a solution, or variations thereof, be implemented? Local school districts will undoubtedly put up bitter fights. There will certainly be the inevitable, debilitating clash between Teachers’ Union and the “progressives.”

But the students themselves are hungry for change and parents and concerned citizens are supportive of overhauling the nation’s public school system. They have given Obama the mandate to do so. The 44th president must make it a priority of his administration to cut the Gordian Knot of America’s public education system and transform it into a source of creativity.
America's future depends on it.

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