Monday, November 7, 2011

Fixing Education

“Either fix our schools or get used to failure”

News stands across the country will feature that statement top and center on the November 14 edition of Time magazine this week. To accompany the piece, its author, Fareed Zakaria, hosted a CNN GPS special “Fixing Education” on Sunday evening. In a sick economy, I suppose that another attack on education sells magazines and draws ratings at least, and lessens the economic downturn for someone. Of course in this case, that might be just fine. It turns out that the author has found the magic bullet for building an excellent system of education and turning the American economy around. Quite profound actually, here is the solution:

“work harder and get better teachers”

Why didn’t anyone think of that already? Well, according to the author the answer is very clear. Half of American teachers graduated in the bottom third of their college class. I guess there aren’t enough smart people in education to figure out the “work hard and get better teachers” formula. Mr. Zakaria arrived at this articulate solution to the education problem by looking overseas toward nations that seem to get education right.

He first points to South Korea. American school children spend less time in school than in South Korea (and many other Asian nations.) He uses the 10,000 hour rule described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” as proof-- 10,000 hours engaged in a task for one's skill set to reach 'expert' status. In a stroke of genius, he suggests that if American students just spent more time in school, we would see dramatic improvements in the system.

The second “global lesson” comes from Finland. These sneaky Scandinavians managed to stay under our radar while they built an education empire by selectively hiring the best and brightest as teachers. On top of that, they pay them well and treat them with the same professional respect as doctors and lawyers. They emphasize creative work and shun tests for most of the year according to Zakaria. That’s the second variable in our formula for excellent schools—find better teachers.

This article is so ground-breaking, its impact could spark a revolution. Why stop at education. Imagine the possibilities if this model were applied to other professions. The NFL- if we just find the best coaches and make them practice longer with the team we’ll win the super bowl every year. Investments- if we just find the best and smartest portfolio managers and make them work long hours we’ll get the best returns. Retail- if we just hire the best salespeople and have them put in lots of hours, our profits will skyrocket. Or what about industry- if we just hire the most productive workers and increase their hours, our profits will hit the roof. Maybe our government could even function better if we would just elect the best officials and make them spend more time in session.

I doubt I’ve been too successful in my attempt at humor, but honestly, this article had quite the opposite effect of making me laugh.
Further Reading on the burden
of schooling many children face.

Let’s look first at time. Most American school children spend thirteen years in school, one-hundred eighty days a year, at least six hours a day. Over 14,000 hours in class (not counting homework). This far surpasses the 10,000 hour rule. Personally, my children are involved in athletics that probably account for between 3-5 hours per week averaged over the year. My middle school son just began a weekly commitment to Destination Imagination and I’m sure that as he and my elementary aged daughter get older, their athletic and extra-curricular involvement will increase. They also have church related commitments that equal 3-5 hours a week. My family values each of these commitments as much as education and I don’t expect my children’s “earning potential” to suffer because they don’t spend enough time in school. I would actually think that my children would suffer from requirements that they spend additional time in school beyond what is currently required.

Then what about these “exceptional teachers.” In other contexts, just take sports for example, an exceptional athlete may never reach their potential until placed in the proper situation. Teaching doesn’t take place in a bubble. Current systems for measuring teacher quality focus almost entirely on how well they affect student achievement on standardized tests. Looking to Finland without addressing the fact that children in Finland are taken care of in a near socialist fashion fails to recognize that the highly qualified teachers of the nation are dealing with students who are highly prepared for school by a government system that fully addresses issues of poverty, health care, and safety that are left to the schools to deal with in the United States. In the United States, we’re labeling effective teachers by student test scores. In Finland, they are labeling effective teachers by their training and efforts.

Putting the two together, Zakaria interviewed Bill Gates for the article and news special. Gates and others assert that experience doesn’t have an impact on teacher quality. It would seem that if Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule was so strict, a teacher would have to practice for ten years before making it to “expert” status.

Mr. Zakaria, I appreciate that you are concerned about the public education system in the United States, but I worry that articles and news broadcasts such as yours do more damage than good. You have limited exposure to the reality of day-to-day education in the United States and your simplistic view of what we can do to fix it reveals the danger of the “arm-chair” administrator to our system.

I teach in a school district with average SAT scores of 556/554/544 (Reading/Math/Verbal). Eighty-Three percent of our graduates pursue higher education. Ninety-three percent of our students graduate on time. The College Board recently recognized us for efforts at increasing access to the AP curriculum while increasing the percentage of students scoring a three or higher on the exams. (81%) Of those, I taught AP to nearly 150 students last year with 90% scoring a three or higher. As an individual teacher and a district, we're doing pretty well.  We also recognize that status quo is not an option and consistently work to improve our effort on behalf of students.

The constant fixation on aggregate numbers paired with stories of great success and great failure at the expense of the commonplace paints an entirely unrealistic picture of what goes on in our nation’s schools every day. It also creates an unnecessary urgency for uniform dramatic change that will kill the success of systems such as mine while attempting to fix the problem of underperforming urban districts. The tagline on the cover of Time—fix our schools or get used to failure—unfairly labels a school such as mine, already demonstrating success and consistently moving toward improvement, as a problem. Instead of recognizing our efforts, we’re scapegoated as the primary obstacle to our nation’s recovery from an economic crisis.

Thanks for the quick fix, we’ll get started on it tomorrow and tell you how it goes. Unless of course you’d like to open real dialogue and acknowledge the diversity of the education systems in the United States and figure out how we target the areas that are failing, develop innovative solutions to consistent problems, and sustain and nurture the systems and teachers who continue to effectively prepare the next generation for a productive life in a global society.


  1. The problem with the quick fix is that it is based on flawed understanding. I guess the quesstion is wheher or not your school is better for all the efforts to make it better, doubt that it is.

  2. The problem with whining about any kind of fix is that elite school district rely on elitist ideology to remove any concern for the other 97% - or whatever percent - of the country.

    That also is at odds with the history of American education. But, then, you're not really concerned with American education. Like the parents and grandparents who can guarantee their own a spot at Yale or Harvard - screw the rest is the other half or your corollary.

  3. Eidcard, I'm glad you brought this up, because frankly, it is an issue I struggle with. For example, research seems to clearly point out that summer losses in reading significantly impact the achievement gap for lower socio-economic groups. Therefore, a longer school year- or year round schooling even- would benefit these students greatly.

    But, for my family, every additional requirement from school is an opportunity away from school that my child will not have the time for. I can't say this without concern for "the other 97%." I would ask though, should my child be required to attend school year round because other students are losing ground in reading with a summer break? On the other hand, what are we saying if we require additional school for some of the population, but not the other. Disadvantaged students spend their time in summer school programs while advantaged students enjoy swim team and summer camps? That doesn't quite sound right either. So what is the answer?

    We need to figure out how to do both, to truly create an environment that levels the playing field by allowing all students to live out their full potential.

    I'm not sure if your last comments were directed at me or not, but I assure you that my background is far from one in which my parents or grandparents could guarantee a spot at Yale or Harvard (and I would be flattered to think that it is remotely possible that I would have that influence in nearly any college with my own children). "Screw the rest" is certainly not the other half of my corollary-- rather, how do we move forward without "screwing" anyone.

  4. In our defense we are many things, but not certain the elitist label fits very well. For myself and Turner do not make enough money to be elitists. Our application was denied. To say we are not really concerned with American Education well now...that just doesn't make much sense. Quite the contrary. To quote my favorite Educational Scholar "it chaps my rear."