Well, it’s the first day of the Democratic Convention, and though I tend, on this blog, to specialize in opposition research and Republican voter suppression, I think it’s incredibly important that President Obama and other Democrats come out with some big ideas to get this country going in the right direction. In this column, I’ll focus on what the President, and the Democratic Party, ought to propose at this convention, in terms of reforming and revitalizing our system of education. (This is the second of the ICANB proposals; the first was on minimum wage)
Currently, the U.S. is 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math, out of 34 OECD countries. We have to do better, because let’s face it: our system of education is responsible for producing the next generation of American workers, entrepreneurs, inventors, etc. The smarter, brighter, and more creative our students and graduates are, the more the U.S. economy will flourish. To be sure, according to Robert Solow’s Nobel Prize winning growth model, there are only two things that spur long term GDP growth: technological advancement (capital efficiency) and/or an increase in population. In this sense, investing in education is really the only way we can ensure long-term growth, because education leads, both directly and indirectly, to technological advancement.
Here are some general things the government should do to improve U.S. Schools.
1) Create a system of grants, scholarships, and financial awards for achievement in education, and to encourage our best and brightest to become teachers. For example:
a) A program where any high school graduate with a 3.75 GPA or better, and an SAT score in the 90th percentile, receives a full scholarship to the college of their choice if they go into education.
b) Create an annual national award of $10,000 for the top 10,000 teachers in the country that breaks down by state and population. This would spur a celebration of the education, provide an additional financial incentive to become a teacher, and highlight the methods and practices of the best teachers in the country.
c) Completely forgive undergraduate and graduate student loans for people who become teachers and who are employed in education for more than 5 years.
2) Enact a federal law mandating that the school year is at least 210 days a year. The average number of school days in the U.S. is around 180. It stands to reason that if U.S. students spent more time in school, their achievement would rise considerably (studies already show that kids get measurably dumber over summer break). Moreover, this mandate would force school districts to renegotiate contracts with the teachers unions; to make a long story short, teachers would receive a larger annual salary (making it more attractive to be a teacher), but their rate of pay would go down slightly (meaning the taxpayer gets more for their money). The bill should include a federal subsidy for 10 years to allow states time to restructure their revenue.
3) Allow principals, school districts, and states more autonomy to run their schools as they see fit. President Obama should call on states to revisit and streamline their school regulations, and lead a charge for the federal government to do the same. In essence, allow principals, school districts, and states to experiment with how they run their schools, such as making school year round, altering bus schedules, offering night/weekend classes, etc.
4) Require that teacher’s unions, in collaboration with school districts and state governments, establish rules where teacher performance (that is based on things teachers have direct influence over, NOT test scores) is factored into salary and tenure. If no such rules are established by 2016, federal education funding to that state will be reduced by 50%.
In sum, this is what President Obama needs to say in his speech on Thursday, September 6th:
“We should encourage our best and brightest students to become teachers, and reward the best teachers for their hard work, innovation, and dedication. In addition, students should spend more time in school working with those teachers to increase their level of achievement. The more time kids spend in school, the more they’re going to learn—that’s just common sense.
“But that’s not all. We have to accept a hard truth, and that is that it simply does not make sense anymore for teacher pay and tenure to be based purely on the number of years they’ve been teaching. Now let me say this: most teachers are models of professionalism, working hours far beyond what they’re paid for, and frequently spending their own money to buy classroom supplies for students that can’t afford them. But too often, a few bad apples overshadow those teachers, and that isn’t fair. It’s not fair to our students, and it certainly isn’t fair to the millions of expert, hardworking American teachers that go to school everyday to teach them.
“That’s why I’m proposing legislation that asks local school districts to work with their teacher’s union to establish rules where teacher performance is factored into salary and tenure. And when I say teacher performance, I’m not talking about test scores—I’m talking about teachers who implement best practices, take graduate classes to learn new and better classroom techniques, and work with parents and other community members to improve the quality of student education. This legislation will advance the teaching profession, strengthen and reinvigorate our teachers unions, and improve the quality of education we deliver to our students.
“Finally, we need to re-examine state and federal laws regulating our schools—principals, school districts, and states need more freedom to do what’s best for their students, which is why I will present a bill to Congress next week, demanding a reform of federal education laws, and why my Department of Education will be working with each and every state in the next four years to make sure we’re not stifling the ideas and innovations necessary to make our schools better. Because I don’t want our schools to be average. I want our schools to the best in the world, and during the next four years, that’s exactly what we’re going to do!”