10 Crazy Ideas for Fixing Our Education System

By Derek Thompson

School is out for almost all students in Kindergarten through college. So now that the teachers and students are out relaxing, let's talk about them behind their backs: Our education system stinks. It's a paragon of wasteful spending and mediocre results. Lucky for us, Obama and his whip-smart Secretary of Education Arne Duncan know that better results require bold changes. So let's get bold! From killing tenure and the SAT to requiring Spanish classes for everybody (er, para todos!), nutty ideas abound. Here are 10 crazy ideas for remaking our schools from K through College:

1) Eliminate summer vacation.

My colleague Conor Clarke has for years argued that summer vacation means that our kids have less time in classrooms than students in other countries (in America, we average about 180 school days a year; Japan averages 240). But Conor isn't just being a workaholic killjoy: he also makes a good point that summer vacation gives richer parents a chance to maintain their kids "education" with expensive summer programs, which less fortunate kids' parents cannot. This leads to backsliding, or the inability of less fortunate students to retain the past year's lessons as well as their richer peers. Imagine: better achievement equality could be an August away.

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2) Extend the School Day.
The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), the brainchild of Teach for America grads, has demonstrated remarkable national results in low-income areas, largely by attracting teachers and students willing to work in an extended school day. Longer days mean more time in classrooms and less time to students to spend in the troubled areas that sometimes surround KIPP schools. Given the myriad factors that contribute to a student's learning, it is remarkable and noteworthy that extended days -- as opposed to higher spending per student -- are one of the most consistent indicators of better achievement.

3) Expand Bilingual Education.
Research on the impact of bilingual education on student achievement is mixed, but studies continue to show the verbal benefits of being steeped in two languages from a young age. At a time when America's term at the top of the world appears increasingly limited, now would make a good time to ask ourselves whether it's appropriate to revisit the question of expanding elementary bilingual education.  Also this way, we could presumably pronounce Sonia Sotomayor's name without getting loco about syllable emphasis.

4) Raise Compulsory Education Age
This is a straightforward one. The longer you stay in school, the better chance to have to get a job and make more money. So why not ask state governments to go further to recognize that? As I wrote yesterday, every level of education (from high school dropout to HS grad to college dropout to college grad) corresponds with higher levels of employment. Harold Levy argues that if the government guaranteed one year of post-grad education to every American (even if the classes are online), it could mark a turning point on par with the GI Bill with incredible benefit to our GDP and employment levels.

5) Kill the SAT.
In 2001 Robert Atkinson, the president of the University of California, proposed the school's admissions discontinue its SAT requirement. He argued that the test is old-fashioned, that it does not measure appropriate skills given the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Another popular argument is that the SAT gives richer parents a chance to put their kids through a grinding tutorial process that inherently puts them at an advantage over students without the means. As this article points out, "when Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and Bates College in Maine stopped requiring the SAT, minority applications doubled."

6) End tenure.
Earlier this year, an incendiary piece about changing universities in the New York Times called for, among other things, the abolition of modern departments and the end of tenure. Tenure calcifies teaching methods, he said, makes professors impervious to criticism and generally weakens departments. We could replace tenure with seven-year contracts to be renewed on the basis of performance, publishing and teaching quality, to give professors the incentives to be better, which tenure now works against.

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7) Pay for Your Major.
Here's one I heard from former-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush a pizza party: colleges should charge different amounts of money depending on a student's pre-professional track, so that, for example, a nurse would pay less for school than a psychologist. This one would be difficult, I imagine, because dropping the price of some majors will require them to raise the price on others to make up the difference, and if student aid doesn't keep up with that shift, we could be pricing out less fortunate students from certain professions, such as pschology. But still, an interesting argument to grapple with.

8) Smart Loans to Make College Affordable.
In Slate, Elliot Spitzer suggested that we replace college loans (which so often leave graduated students in mountainous debt) with a more calibrated system. He describes it like this: "Instead of paying upfront or taking loans with repayment schedules unrelated to income, students would accept an obligation to pay a fixed percentage of their income for a specified period of time, regardless of the income level achieved." This, Spitzer said, would both allow students to finance their own education and free up space for parents to save for other expenses, such as health care. To make enforcement universal, the IRS could be in charge of collecting.

9) Smart Certificates to Make College Non-Essential.
Charles Murray added to his lightening rod status when he called the college system of Bachelor degrees "cruel, not so say insane" and said certification checks would provide a much better indication of knowledge and potential to succeed in a given field. One model, he wrote, could be the CPA exam for certified public accountants. In addition to giving employers a better sense of applicants' capabilities, it would reduce the burden on parents paying for college: "Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required."

10) Rank Everything.
Ranking is fun and controversial, but when it comes to identifying the best schools, it's also crucial. Harold Levy says the Dept of Education should start ranking colleges and universities publicly to give parents and students a better guide than US News & World Report. And why not do the same for high schools, too? If we mandated a national standardized test, it would not only remove the pernicious incentives among states to lower the bar for students, but also it might allow the government to provide an fair ranking of elementary and high schools both within and across state lines to provide a clearer picture of which schools are rising up or falling behind.

That's me! Who's got more ideas to publish in a follow-up?

*Flickr image of pensive student (foundphotoslj) and cake graduate (Carbon NYC).

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/06/10-crazy-ideas-for-fixing-our-education-system/18970/