Fixing Education: The Problems Are Clear, but the Solutions Aren't Simple

Panelists at the New York Ideas forum on public education agreed on one thing: Our schools need help. But they couldn't agree on much else.

Elena Olivo

Much like the earlier discussion about bipartisan gridlock in Washington, putting former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein on the same stage with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is a recipe for going home unsatisfied. Unless you want to see two old rivals sparring, in which case, grab some popcorn.

If you wanted to find agreement on how to fix the problems of public school education, however, you might have been left spinning your wheels. All the guests on the education panel at New York Ideas agreed that the system needs help. Cami Anderson oversees a school district (Newark, NJ) where the average proficiency of third graders is just 25 percent. Gaston Caperton, a former governor who now runs the College Board, produces the tests that depending on who you ask, finds the winners, but possibly rigs the system. Holden Thorp, as chancellor of a major university (North Carolina-Chapel Hill), is part of a higher-education system where small elite colleges, filled with the highest of achievers, spend more per pupil than states school bursting with students who could use greater attention. We all have our baggage.

Conversations and debates on the big issues of the day.

But can they come together to decide what's best for our kids? If only it were that simple. The problem with the education system, of course, is that there simply are no perfect answers. The obstacles to learning are numerous and well-documented, and most efforts at reform come with a litany of mixed blessings. Caperton began with a moving story of a young illiterate man redeemed by education. That prompted Klein to wonder why, if that school succeeded for that student, why can't it be done everywhere. How do we save the good ideas and toss out the bad ones? How do we even figure out what the good ones are?

That's the eternal question that educators have searched in vain to answer, though there were certainly some good ideas offered at the forum. Yes, school choice (which Klein supports) helps some kids find a better option, but what about those left behind? Yes, keeping neighborhood schools intact (as Anderson and Weingarten pressed for) so that the neighborhoods themselves can be fixed helps those kids who have no better options. But what about those forced to make do while they wait for change to come? (If it comes?) The early back and forth between Klein and Weingarten probably left the audience feeling that both arguments were right, even if both ideas can't appear thrive in the same world.

But perhaps they can. Where is it written that all schools have to look and act as they have for generations? Moderator Water Issacson suggested that Benjamin Franklin would not only recognize the standard classroom setup of today, it would be almost indistinguishable from the one he helped created more than 200 years ago. Does that mean it's the only system we need?

The debate then moved to more familiar ground -- financial resources, technology, and data. We need more of it, and we need it to be better. Weingarten announced that the AFT is launching a new program that compiles teaching plans that anyone can access and adapt. Anderson is pushing for more diversity (economic, racial, and academic) in Newark schools to keep kids from languishing in the worst of conditions. There's no shortage of solid ideas, which is good, because its going to take more than one magic bullet.

The one thing all the panelist could agree on is that the we can't "wait for Godot" as Klein puts it. You also cannot try fixing the issues one at a time, as Anderson passionately insisted, like plugging holes on a sinking ship. You can't work on parent engagement one year, and teacher training the next and look for a new principal the year after that and then expect a four-year high school student to see any benefit. Change must comprehensive and aggressive, because it takes 12 years to graduate, but only one to drop out.

In the end, the panel finished -- like most discussions between passionate, but competing ideals -- with the argument everyone expected: Weingarten and Klein sparring over collective bargaining. Strong, accountable, well-compensated teachers are what we all want, right? How we get there is a debate that is far from over.