Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the nation's most expansive school voucher program into law. Since the GOP sweep of statehouses in 2010, similar measures have been introduced by the legislatures of more than 30 states — including Pennsylvania, where a bipartisan school voucher bill was defeated in the House in December.
Few doubt that there is a crisis in America's public schools. But focusing so much attention on where money is spent — instead of how — oversimplifies a complex problem.
Real reform will require replacing our top-down system focused on arbitrary benchmarks and administrative minutiae with one that places a highly skilled class of teachers at the vanguard. We know this because it's a long-standing recipe for success in the countries that consistently out-educate us.
A stubborn faith in American exceptionalism — and in the ability of money to solve every problem — has left us mired in industrial-age education policy. Meanwhile, countries such as Estonia, Slovenia, Singapore, and China have bounded ahead. If U.S. officials took notice, they chose to remain silent.
Fortunately, that's beginning to change. In 2010, at the behest of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a study detailing the strategies of the countries that ranked highest in its educational assessments. Last fall, the National Center on Education and the Economy updated the findings to develop a series of recommendations for U.S. policymakers.
A glance reveals a handful of tried-and-true strategies, most diametrically opposed to America's. They include diverting resources to students who need them most, putting less emphasis on class sizes and more on teacher autonomy, and keeping standardized testing to a minimum.
Without exception, the dominant ingredient is effective teachers. But unlike in the United States, where the emphasis is on the back end — finding ways to weed out underperforming teachers — the world's leading systems are more concerned with getting it right up front, by employing stringent vetting and hiring only the best and brightest educators.
According to McKinsey & Co., nearly half of America's K-12 teachers come from the bottom third of their college classes. In high-poverty urban areas like Philadelphia, just 14 percent come from the top of their classes. By contrast, Finland, the world leader in education, requires all its teachers to have master's degrees and accepts just 10 percent of the college graduates who apply for teacher training.
Replicating this here would require raising the social and professional status of teachers. Yes, part of that would be paying them more — but not much more. It means giving teachers income parity with other professions. In America, a starting teacher earns, on average, the same as a fast-food restaurant manager, or $10,000 to $15,000 a year less than other professionals with comparable levels of education, such as accountants, programmers, and nurses.
State, not local
Make no mistake, we have the money. We currently shell out more for education than any country except Switzerland, nearly $150,000 per student over a 13-year school career. But only 50 to 60 percent finds its way to the classroom. Spending a higher proportion of education dollars on students and teachers would need to be a component of any comprehensive reform.
Better-trained educators would pay for themselves if given the freedom to rely less on administrators and more on each other. According to Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, this is standard procedure in high-performing countries, where teachers are part of a highly collaborative, professional workforce that is encouraged to diagnose problems and find solutions.
"What's happening in countries like Finland, and it's not alone, is that they are giving more and more discretion to teachers," Tucker told me. "But they feel they can do that because they have better-educated teachers. ... They have created a set of policies that are producing teachers they can trust, while here in the U.S., we are basically pursuing a set of policies that are designed for teachers we don't trust."
To nurture such reforms here, states would have to play a much bigger role in education. Direct funding of K-12 education would have to be shifted from the local to the state level to eliminate disparities between rich and poor communities. According to Tucker's group, not a single high-performing country funds its schools locally.
At the same time, administrative control should be taken away from Washington, where it has degenerated from a noble experiment in equal opportunity and national excellence into a preoccupation with performance metrics.
The goal — national standards administered by states — is not only attainable; it's being modeled under the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Established in 2009 by the National Governors Association, the standards are slated for full implementation in 2014-15, with 45 states pledging to use them for most of their curriculum.
Reversing the decline of American public education won't be easy. But the good news is that there are proven solutions at hand. Our future as a nation might depend on putting partisanship aside and adopting what's already working elsewhere in the world.
Christopher Moraff is a contributing writer for the Philadelphia Tribune and In These Times, where he serves on the board of editors.