K-12 education is a hot topic these days. While there is considerable debate about what should be done about education, the facts are fairly clear: American students are not performing very well and are losing ground to students in other countries.
Fixing the problems requires identifying the causes and addressing them. But, as they say, this is easier typed than done.
One popular explanation is that teacher quality is low and that the powerful teachers‘ unions protect incompetent teachers. There is some merit to these claims.
A profession generally attracts high quality people when it pays well, earns respect, or people find it rewarding. Teaching generally does not pay that well, it is not very respected, and it has become increasingly less rewarding. As such, when a top notch student graduates she will probably not consider being a K-12 teacher a wise and rewarding career move. Naturally, there are some exceptions. There are top notch people who find teaching extremely rewarding and they do amazing things. But, these people are not common.
The solution to the pay problem is straightforward: pay teachers more. Of course, getting that money in these times will be rather challenging. After all, we blew a fortune bailing out big companies and have so little left for education. Getting people to respect teaching and making it rewarding are two rather serious challenges. Ironically, teachers have to do better to get more of the respect that will in turn help motivate top students to become teachers. Making it more rewarding can be done, to a degree, by taking steps to reduce the more awful parts of the job.
While unions do a great deal of good, they have also been accused of helping to create an education system in which merit is not rewarded and incompetence is not punished. Obviously enough, if a person has no real incentive to do a better job and no fear of punishment for doing poorly, then that person will tend to not excel in his job. Of course, there are people who are internally motivated-they do their best even if they are not rewarded and do not fear being punished. But, such people are rare and even such people have limits.
While some folks have called for getting rid of teachers’ unions, that would most likely create another set of problems (after all, unions do considerable good-just look at working conditions and pay in the pre-union times). What should be done is to reconnect performance with pay and job security. Obviously enough, if someone stands to gain from doing well and lose out from doing poorly, then she will tend to do better. Or, if she cannot, then she can be removed to create room for someone who will.
This does raise some big challenges. For example, there is the problem of measuring success. I have been on a university committee that has been working on standards for assessing education results since 2004. While it might seem that the methods should be easy and obvious, this is not the case. Working out objective, accurate and fair standards of assessment is rather challenging. Measuring what a specific teacher adds to the process is even more challenging. However, one fact that indicates that this can done is the fact that we generally know who the good and the bad teachers are. Just think back to your own experiences in school-I am sure that you had a rather good idea who sucked, who was adequate and who was awesome. The problem is how to capture this on paper and apply it.
So, one possible line of improvement involves linking performance and job security to performance. Naturally, the rewards have to be enough to attract and keep high quality teachers (that is, people who could probably do just fine in other fields). America once had the best education system in the world, and it is something that we can have again. Or not-it is mostly up to us.