The Failure of American Schools

Who better to lead an educational revolution than Joel Klein, the prosecutor who took on the software giant Microsoft? But in his eight years as chancellor of New York City’s school system, the nation’s largest, Klein learned a few painful lessons of his own—about feckless politicians, recalcitrant unions, mediocre teachers, and other enduring obstacles to school reform.

That’s why internal accountability along the lines that Shanker discussed is critical. School districts need a system to fairly evaluate the effect of schools and teachers on kids, which is the best proxy we have for assessing “consumer preference” in a largely monopolistic system. Shanker also had the right idea about how to measure outcomes: by looking at student progress on apples-to-apples metrics, rather than at whether students do well or poorly against an absolute, static index. On a four-point scale, for example, a teacher deserves credit for moving a kid from a 1 to a 2 and should lose credit for letting another kid fall from a 4 to a 3, even though a 3 is better than a 2 in an absolute sense. Some kids come to school way ahead of others, and giving the school or teacher credit for that makes no sense. But if schools or teachers have essentially the same kids, with the same challenges, and the same starting performance levels, it’s pretty easy to measure which are helping the kids make progress and which aren’t.

Finally, as Shanker emphasized, meaningful teacher accountability means major consequences for student outcomes. Those teachers and principals whose students do well should get substantial merit pay; those who don’t should be fired. Similarly, schools that do poorly should be replaced. Without real consequences tied to performance, the results won’t significantly change. Again, resistance to this kind of accountability is always fierce. In New York, we closed many large, overwhelmingly minority high schools that were posting abysmal graduation rates—some even below 40 percent—and replaced them with new, small high schools. Although research showed that the new schools were getting significantly better results, I wasn’t surprised when the teachers union sued us to block future closures—they want to protect their members. But I was shocked when the NAACP joined the suit. How could it defend schools that were consistently graduating fewer than half their African American children?

Despite the setbacks, we are seeing progress. In response to President Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top Fund, which requires states to compete for big federal grants, and rewards accountability systems that measure whether teachers add value, several states—including Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Ohio—have enacted legislation moving in this direction. Under Michelle Rhee’s leadership, Washington, D.C., adopted the best of these systems with the agreement of its local and national teachers unions, including the union headed by Randi Weingarten. The District was authorized to award substantial merit pay (resulting in salaries of up to $130,000) and to fire teachers who were not performing well. Rhee fired more than 200 of them.

But although Weingarten’s union had agreed to the contract, it reportedly spent $1 million and mobilized huge numbers of volunteers to defeat Washington’s mayor, Adrian Fenty, when he was up for reelection two months later. That intervention surely sent a message to other reformers throughout the country: we unions talk reform, but firing incompetent teachers will never be a real part of that.

The second big thing we need to change is the people we attract into teaching. When McKinsey and Company compared educational performance around the world, it came to the seemingly obvious, yet often disputed, conclusion that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”:

The top-performing school systems [internationally] attract more able people into the teaching profession, leading to better student outcomes … The top-performing systems we studied recruit their teachers from the top third of each cohort [that graduates] from their school system … Conversely, lower-performing school systems rarely attract the right people into teaching. The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce observes that, “We are now recruiting our teachers from the bottom third of high-school students going to college.”

By recruiting teachers mostly from the middle and bottom of their college classes, as America has done for decades now, not only did we not get the talent we needed, but we also fostered a culture where excellence and merit don’t matter.

A rational compensation scheme is critical to fixing this core human-capital weakness: rather than just pay for longevity and lifetime benefits, we must reward excellence and enable the system to meet its needs. If, going forward, we eliminated all the automatic raises and promises of huge lifetime benefits, we’d have an enormous amount of money to devote to merit pay, hardship-assignment incentives, and recruiting in subjects where we have shortages. If we could front-load compensation, new teachers could get as much as $80,000 by year three or four. This would make a huge difference. If you have any doubt, just ask the talented, ambitious young teachers who come through Teach for America or comparable programs. Many leave well before they peak, even though they like the work, because their pay remains quite low in the early years—up to about $55,000—and they are unwilling to commit to staying around for 25 years to cash in on the back-loaded pay structure.

I once proposed a portion of this—simply eliminating the lifetime, defined-benefit pension, monetizing the savings, and then paying it to teachers in their early years—in a conversation with union officials. I was prepared to give each new teacher a choice between the current pay scale (with the existing pension) and this new pay proposal. Although no teacher would have been compelled to switch, the UFT rejected the idea as “anti-union.” But we have evidence to show that these monetary incentives can work. In Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee negotiated a merit-based compensation system—where teachers could get paid much more in the early years. As a result, it appears, significant numbers of teachers from D.C.’s charter schools apply to teach in its traditional public schools. Only money can explain that.

Of course, another way to attract and retain very effective teachers would be to create more schools that work. In my experience, many of the best public-school teachers apply to high-functioning charter schools, even though they usually give up job security, and lifetime health care and pensions, while generally getting a similar or slightly higher salary (although often augmented by modest merit pay). They go because they want to be part of a successful school, where teachers are treated like professionals and not subjected to endless administrative and union micromanagement.

Last, to shake up the system, we must change how we use technology to deliver instruction. (This is what I’m now seeking to do at News Corporation.) The present resistance to innovation is breathtaking. Consider this story: When we replaced many large, failing high schools with more, much smaller schools, many of the new schools had only a handful of kids who wanted to take rigorous Advanced Placement courses, which can earn students college credit. Several good online programs teach the necessary course content. But in New York state, you cannot get high-school credit unless you’re taught by a live teacher (a requirement referred to as “seat time”), and these small schools didn’t have enough students to bring in an AP teacher. I approached our State Education Department in Albany, which had the authority to waive the seat-time requirement: if a kid could get college credit for passing an online AP course, surely she should be able to get high-school credit as well.

As soon as the UFT heard that we had requested a waiver from the state, it faxed us a letter saying, “The elimination of seat-time requirements needs to be negotiated,” making clear that if we tried to proceed, this would be war. You see, if we opened the door to online AP courses, maybe we’d end up needing fewer teachers, and that wouldn’t be good for union membership, dues, or power. I got nowhere.

But one of the best things we could do is hire fewer teachers and pay more to the ones we hire. And, as in any other field, technology can help get us there. If you have 5,000 math teachers, many of whom are underperforming, significantly improving overall quality is nearly impossible. But if you get the best math professors in the world—who are great teachers and who deeply understand math—and match them with great software developers, they can create sophisticated interactive programs that engage kids and empower teachers. Why not start with such a program and then let teachers supplement it differently, depending on the progress of each student?

That’s a whole lot easier than trying to teach the same math lesson to 30 kids, some of whom are getting it quickly and some of whom aren’t getting it at all. We now have multiple ways to teach the same lessons. As a result, we can tailor both the means and the pacing to each student. We can use digital games where kids progress based on solving increasingly difficult math problems, virtual classes that kids can take online, and tutors whom kids can work with online, as well as, of course, teachers working with large or small groups in person. The possibilities are enormous. We should be trying them all and constantly improving how we do the work. That’s exactly what New York City is doing in a pilot program called the School of One, which was designed to move from the classroom as the locus of instruction to the individual student as the focus of instruction.

More broadly, we need to foster a fundamental shift from a top-down, one-size-fits-all culture—mandated class-size reduction, after-school programs, and the like—to a culture that supports innovation. In New York City, we set out to change these preexisting dynamics by allowing educators and community groups—rather than the central bureaucracy—to design and run new schools to replace the failing ones. The result was a lot of innovation. For example, New York City is now piloting something called the Generation School, which uses staff time very differently and thus extends the school day and year significantly. Last year, the City also opened something called the New American Academy, where four teachers are collectively responsible for educating 60 kids, and they stay with those children from kindergarten through the fifth grade. The teachers are categorized as Master, Partner, Associate, and Apprentice, and they are paid very differently and get promoted from one level to the next based on performance as well as peer and supervisory review.

Change is possible. In New York City, it took a mayor willing to assume control over the system and risk significant political capital. It required time—Mayor Bloomberg and I had more than eight years together, while most urban superintendents serve for about three and a half years. It required taking risks, knowing that not every change will work out and that your critics will focus mercilessly on those that don’t. But most of all, it required building community and political support. Toward the end of my tenure, we were engaged in an enormous fight to lift the state-imposed cap on our number of charter schools—an initiative the teachers unions strongly opposed precisely because our expansion of charter schools had been so successful. In fact, six months earlier, a similar effort had gone down to defeat at the unions’ hands. But this time, the families with kids in charter schools and our allies in the community were prepared to help us fight. Philanthropic and business interests raised millions to support the mobilization effort, run ads, and hire lobbyists. We prevailed, and the cap was raised substantially.

Sadly, that kind of success is still exceptional. In the three decades since A Nation at Risk came out, many have echoed its cries of alarm, but few have heeded its calls for bold change. Indeed, in his 1993 Pew Forum speech, Al Shanker spoke in shockingly candid terms:

We are at the point that the auto industry was at a few years ago. They could see they were losing market share every year and still not believe that it really had anything to do with the quality of the product I think we will get—and deserve—the end of public education through some sort of privatization scheme if we don’t behave differently. Unfortunately, very few people really believe that yet. They talk about it, and they don’t like it, but they’re not ready to change and stop doing the things that brought us to this point.

Time is running out. Without political leadership willing to take risks and build support for “radical reform,” and without a citizenry willing to insist on those reforms, our schools will continue to decline. And just as it was with Detroit, the global marketplace will be very unforgiving to a populace that doesn’t have the skills it demands. McKinsey estimates that the benefits of bringing our educational levels up to those of the highest-performing countries would have raised our gross domestic product by about $2 trillion in 2008. By the same token, every year we fail to close that gap is like living with the equivalent of a permanent national recession. Shocking as that may sound, the costs in human terms, to our nation and to the kind of people we aspire to become, will be even greater.

Presented by

Joel Klein is the CEO of the Educational Division at News Corporation.

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