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10 Steps to World-Class Schools

By William Brock, Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker
Saturday, May 30, 2009 12:00 AM

The key to U.S. global stature after World War II was the world's best-educated workforce. But now the United States ranks No. 12, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and today's younger generation is the first to be less educated than the preceding one.

No Child Left Behind is about getting our lowest-performing students to minimum standards. That is nowhere near enough. To get us where we need to go, we propose the National World Class Schools Act to replace NCLB. To get its fair share of federal education funds, a state would need to:

*Set standards for licensing teachers that are high enough to recruit from the top third of college graduates -- that's what the top-performing countries do,and never waive them during a shortage. If we insisted on high standards for our teachers and didn't waive them, teachers' pay would have to rise, a lot, and the pay for those in the shortest supply -- math and science teachers, and teachers willing to work in tough inner-city schools and isolated rural areas -- would rise the most.

*Get outstanding students to go into teaching and treat them like professionals, not blue-collar workers in dead-end jobs. That means putting teachers in charge of their schools.

*Reward schools that do a great job. NCLB penalizes schools when they fail but offers no rewards for outstanding work. Provide cash payments of 10 percent of the school budget every year to every school whose students significantly exceed the statistical predictions of performance for students with the same characteristics. Tell principals and faculties that they will get their normal budgets if their students are making adequate progress toward the standard of ready-for-college-without-remediation by graduation, and that they will be handsomely rewarded if their students are making substantially more progress toward that goal than other schools with similar student bodies. The financial reward should come as a big bonus for the school, and the faculty should decide how to spend it. This is better than rewarding individual teachers on the basis of their students' performance, which is hard to measure and will destroy the team spirit essential to a good school.

*Hold faculty accountable for student achievement. Take over every school that, after three years, is unable to get at least 90 percent of all major groups of students on track to leave high school ready to enter college without the need to take any remedial courses; do the same for every district in which more than a quarter of the schools are under review for underperformance for three years or more. Declare such schools and districts bankrupt and void all contracts with their staffs.

*Replace the current accountability tests with high-quality, course-based exams. The way we measure student performance is crucial. Rigor, creativity and innovation in student performance require a high-quality curriculum and exams, and will be impossible to achieve if we continue to use the kind of multiple-choice, computer-scored tests that are common today.

*Collect a variety of information on school and student performance and make it easily accessible to parents, students and teachers. Allow parents to choose freely among the available public schools.

*Provide high-quality training and technical assistance to every school whose students are not on track to succeed. Most struggling schools are in chaos; their morale is in the basement and their faculties don't know how to improve things. States have little capacity to fix this; the federal government needs to help.

*Limit variations in any states' per-pupil expenditures to no more than 5 percent by school, except for the differential cost of educating disadvantaged students and those with disabilities to the same standards as students who have no disabilities. In this country, students who need the most help have the lowest school budgets -- a formula for national failure.

*Make a range of social services available to children from low-income families and coordinate those services with those students' school programs. We have the most unequal distribution of income of any industrialized nation. If the problems posed by students' poverty are not dealt with, it may be nearly impossible for schools to educate the students to world-class standards. The state cannot eliminate students' poverty, but it can take steps to alleviate its effects on students' capacity to learn.

*Offer high-quality early-childhood education to, at a minimum, all 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds. Students from low-income families entering kindergarten have less than half the vocabulary of the other students. In kindergarten and the early grades, those with the smallest vocabularies cannot follow what is going on and fall further behind. By the end of fourth grade, they are so far behind they can never catch up. By the time they are 16 and can legally drop out of school, they do so because they can no longer stand the humiliation of not being able to follow what is going on in their classes. That is why we lead the industrialized world in the proportion of students who drop out.

Yes, these are radical proposals. But decades of incremental proposals have brought steadily increasing costs and flat performance. Time is running out. It is hard to make a case that the federal government should continue to fund the states to maintain the status quo.

William Brock was secretary of labor in the Reagan administration. Ray Marshall was secretary of labor in the Carter administration. Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). They are leaders of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, an initiative of the NCEE.

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