Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews
Columnist

5 ways to save American education

A research team led by Marc S. Tucker, a relentless advocate for adopting successful international practices in U.S. schools, recently concluded that we, in essence, are doing almost nothing right.

His investigators could find no evidence, Tucker said, “that any country that leads the world’s education performance league tables has gotten there by implementing any of the major agenda items that dominate the education reform agenda in the United States, with the exception of the Common Core State Standards.”

Jay Mathews

writes a weekly column about education and the Class Struggle blog.

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Congratulations, I guess, go to the 45 states implementing that new common curriculum. Other American approaches, such as charter schools, vouchers, computer-oriented entrepreneurs and rating teachers by the test scores of their students, are rarely found in the overseas systems showing the greatest gains, according to Tucker’s new book “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.”

On Monday, I listed several false assumptions Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, says have caused us to go astray. They include our view that our mediocre scores on international tests are the result of too many diverse students, that more money would help schools improve and that it is better to focus on lowering class sizes than raising teacher salaries.

Today, I offer the solutions Tucker and his team propose. They are heavily influenced by what is working overseas, particularly in Japan, Korea, Finland, Shanghai, Singapore and Canada. Can these reforms blossom in our very different culture, with stronger local control of schools and less respect for teachers? I guess at the chances of success here for each suggestion.

1. Make admission to teacher training more competitive, pegged to international standards of academic achievement, mastery of subject matter and ability to relate to children. Most U.S. education schools can’t survive financially without enrolling many average or below-average students, so this has only a 20 percent chance.

2. Raise teacher compensation significantly. Initially, this has the same bad odds, a 20 percent chance. But over time, standards and salaries could rise if education schools developed special academies — similar to undergraduate honors colleges — that were as selective as the Columbia, Harvard and Stanford education schools and the Teach for America program. Tucker says that with better pay, fewer teachers would quit, saving money now spent to train replacements.

3. Allow larger class sizes. More students per classroom means more money to pay teachers. The American trend toward smaller classes (down to an average of about 25 per classroom) has run its course. Some of the most successful public charter schools have 30 students in a class. Japan does well with large classes. Given those developments, chances are 70 percent this could be done.

4. End annual standardized testing in favor of three federally required tests to gauge mastery at the end of elementary school, 10th grade and 12th grade. The change has an 80 percent chance because it would save money and please many teachers and parents who think we test too much. Such tests overseas are of higher quality, not so much computer-scored multiple choice and would help raise American learning standards, Tucker says.

5. Spend more money on students who need more help getting to high standards. Based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Tucker favors a weighted pupil finance formula, only a few U.S. districts have tried. There would be the usual per-pupil funds but extra money for students who need to be brought up to the standard. Americans favor more support for struggling students, but I give this only a 60 percent chance because of state and federal budget difficulties.

Making these changes seems daunting, but Tucker notes that the best school systems overseas took 30 to 100 years to get there. With some patience and luck, we could do that, too.

 
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