Education Reform and U.S. Competitiveness
from Renewing America and Renewing America: Education and Human Capital Development

Education Reform and U.S. Competitiveness

How should the United States reform its K-12 education system to retain global competitiveness? Four experts say reforms revolve around teachers.

September 9, 2011 1:48 pm (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

[Editor’s Note: This is part of CFR’s Renewing America initiative, which examines how domestic policies will influence U.S. economic and military strength and its ability to act in the world.]

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Many experts agree that the United States needs to implement education reforms, especially in math and sciences, to retain U.S. competitiveness in the world. But there is disagreement on how to proceed.

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In this roundup, four experts offer a range of reform options, with a focus on different ways to improve the performance of teachers in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Craig R. Barrett, appointed by President Barack Obama as one of the private-sector leaders for a national education initiative on science, technology, engineering, and math known as Change the Equation, calls for improving the quality of teachers by recruiting them from the top of university graduating classes. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education, cautions against standardized testing, saying it does not encourage innovation, creativity, or imagination in students. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says the country needs to invest more in its education system and teachers’ input should be taken when making new policies. Steven Brill, author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, also urges improving effectiveness of teachers. He suggests revamping teachers’ union contracts to substitute an ethic of performance for protection.

Craig R. Barrett

To compete in the twenty-first century, individuals and countries will have to add value in the workplace to command a high standard of living and be competitive in the global marketplace. Education is the key to adding value. The United States recognizes that its K-12 education is not doing the job. You need good teachers with content expertise, high expectations, and feedback systems to help struggling students and teachers. These three requirements are difficult to implement in a massive public education system designed more for working adults than for learning students.

We need to follow the lead of other countries and recruit teachers from the top of universities’ graduating classes. We might start by converting all schools of education to programs like UTeach in Texas, a program designed to turn content experts into teachers, letting potential teachers study subject matter they will be teaching rather than the mind numbing theory of how to teach.

Good tools help make education more interesting and exciting, but ultimately quality of education comes down to quality of the teacher.

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The United States needs to open its eyes in regard to expectation levels in our K-12 system. Achieve, a non-profit education reform organization, has been working on a state-driven, internationally benchmarked common core curriculum to replace today’s myriad state tests. This will be an effort to get all kids in the United States to focus on learning the same material by grade level, by subject matter, in alignment with other successful education systems in the world.  Driving these changes at the local level can provide the political will to implement change and get states to lead the way.

Catalyzing change in education is especially difficult because of entrenched bureaucracies and the K-12 state monopoly. There is opportunity to use competition to effect change via charter schools. In states like Arizona, Colorado, and Indiana, charter schools are given great leeway in how they operate. Schools should embrace more tension in the system through paying for performance, employing data systems that track how much a child learns from a teacher, measuring teacher quality, giving local administrators the ability to manage staff and finances, and comparing results to the best education systems in the world.

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There is also room for innovation, such as distance learning, one-on-one computing in the classroom, and software tools. Good tools help make education more interesting and exciting, but ultimately quality of education comes down to quality of the teacher. Without good teachers and high expectations, we will continue to languish behind other OECD countries.

Diane Ravitch

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama said the way to win the future is to encourage innovation and to "spark the creativity and imagination of our people." He is right about that. Throughout our history, our nation’s competitive edge has always been the ingenuity of individuals.

Unfortunately, the education policies of the past decade--promoted by the George W. Bush administration, mandated by Congress, and now supported by the Obama administration--do just the opposite. Our nation’s education has been trussed and bound by rigid prescriptions of Bush’s No Child Left Behind (PDF) legislation of 2001.

Our nation’s education has been trussed and bound by rigid prescriptions of Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001.

This law requires that states test every student in grades 3-8 every year and disaggregate the grades by race, ethnicity, disability, poverty level, and English-language learners. It mandates that 100 percent of students in every subgroup must achieve proficiency on standardized tests by the year 2014. Any school not on track to meet that utopian goal faces severe sanctions. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned recently that more than 80 percent of U.S. schools would be labeled "failing" this year. No nation has ever achieved 100 percent proficiency, nor has any nation ever passed a law that would stigmatize almost every one of its schools as failing.

Every public school is now focused on teaching children to pass tests in basic skills. Billions are spent on testing and test preparation. Many students learn to pass tests, yet require remediation when they apply to college. In some districts, notably Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Georgia, investigators have uncovered cheating scandals.

The Obama administration has raised the stakes attached to testing by dangling large sums before states if they agree to judge teachers by their students’ test scores. There is no evidence that this strategy can accurately identify teacher quality, yet many states have agreed to enact ineffectual policies to qualify for new federal funding.

This intense devotion to standardized testing will not encourage innovation, creativity, or imagination. The federal government should get out of the business of mandating standardized testing and punishing teachers and schools for not meeting unreasonable targets. It should stop encouraging the privatization of public education.

Our schools promote creativity and innovation when teachers have the time and resources to enable students to experiment, create, and question, using technology or just tinkering on their own, or completing an original project. Creative thinking grows from asking questions and exploring, not guessing the right answer.

Randi Weingarten

Public schools that uniformly provide students with an excellent education are essential for preparing our children for full and productive lives and for our country’s competitiveness. Every day, in classrooms across the country, teachers help move us toward those goals. But our schools are not organized or supported in a way to provide all children with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life and career.

Many American education policies reinforce the inadequacies of our approach to education: the misuse of standardized testing, narrowing of the curriculum, emphasis on competition over collaboration, and other top-down reforms divorced from classroom realities. Deep, harmful, and ongoing cuts to education have set us even further back.

A review of international educational performance and practices released this year showed the stark differences between practices in the top-performing countries and the prevailing approaches to education in the United States.

"In tough economic times, leaders often talk about regaining competitiveness at the same time they seek quick fixes and slash support for public education.

The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, showed that the highest-achieving countries in the world out-prepare, out-invest, and, as a result, outperform the United States. The top-performing countries on PISA--Finland, Singapore, and South Korea--emphasize ongoing teacher preparation and development, mentoring, and meaningful collaboration. They do not use standardized tests punitively, they respect teachers, and each has a well-rounded curriculum that teachers can tailor.

Contrast this with the United States, where teacher preparation too often is woefully insufficient, teachers frequently are assigned a classroom and left to sink or swim, and turnover is rampant. Teachers are routinely asked to implement policies made without their input, and then blamed when the policies fail.

Top-performing countries offset the effects of poverty through wraparound services and provide a more equitable education for all children. Shanghai, which outranked all its competitors, emphasizes support for struggling teachers and schools, pairing them with teachers and leaders of high-performing schools until they improve. The United States, in contrast, too often employs draconian measures such as school closings and mass teacher firings.

In tough economic times, leaders often talk about regaining competitiveness at the same time they seek quick fixes and slash support for public education. Evidence from our international neighbors shows the folly of this approach while providing us with lessons for the benefit of our kids, and our competitiveness.

Steven Brill

Here’s the bad news about making America’s next generation competitive in the global economy: Anything we do today to fix our failing public schools will take fifteen to twenty years to show significant results.

Last year, the head of the Pittsburgh school system--who was engaged in a trailblazing reform effort--did the math for me this way: He knew from research done by various think tanks and education experts over the last decade that improving the effectiveness of teachers was the single most important factor in improving student outcomes. However, he calculated that if he could remove the 2 to 3 percent of his teachers that were least effective every year, it would still take him ten years to refortify a third of his staff. And in a public education world where the unions have typically been able to protect even the lowest-performing teachers, that kind of quality upgrade seemed doable only because the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had offered the city a grant that required the union to cooperate in return for a huge injection of funds into the school system.

Anything we do today to fix our failing public schools will take fifteen to twenty years to show significant results.

The good news, however, is that, spurred in large part by President Obama’s Race to the Top federal education grant contest and supported by a burgeoning network of reformers, more efforts like Pittsburgh’s are now underway. In many places, union leaders, including American Federation of Teachers’ President Randi Weingarten, have shown a willingness to participate in these reforms rather than be run over by them.

But these reforms--and the accompanying spread of high-performing charter schools in places like New Orleans, Harlem, and Washington, DC, which demonstrate that children from the most challenged backgrounds can succeed in schools with the most talented leaders and teachers--aren’t enough. There are now 3.2 million K-12 public school teachers. It’s the largest occupation in the country, except for retail sales clerks and cashiers. Yet it is the only occupation where, because of union contracts, performance is not a factor in pay or advancement.

Turning around such a large workforce can’t be done by bypassing the unions with pilot projects or charter schools. We have to revamp the union contracts completely to substitute an ethic of performance for protection. As I explain in my book, there are ways to do that so that without spending any extra taxpayer money, talented teachers could be paid more and teaching could become a prestige profession, not a civil service job.


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