With schools back in session it's worth reminding ourselves of a sobering fact: America's average public school teacher is paid $46,000 a year. Largely because of the persistent efforts of teachers unions, that number is much higher in real terms than it was two decades ago. Still, it pales in comparison with the compensation of other professionals.
If you believe (1) that teacher quality is crucial to the success of our schools and (2) that ultimately we get what we pay for, then let's be clear: We need to double the average teacher's pay in America -- and even triple it for our best-performing teachers -- if schools are to compete with other fields for the talent they need.
But providing that kind of increase is far from easy. Teachers and their unions must fight for even 5 percent annual raises. Why? Because the taxpayer-crushing scale of K-12 education makes any increase a very big deal.
Consider: America has more than 90,000 public schools educating nearly 50 million children. Public education is a country within our country. As a society, we spend around $350 million per school hour on public education. U.S. K-12 education has roughly four times as many employees as Wal-Mart, the world's largest company.
All of this means that a dramatic shift in compensation has an equally dramatic impact on taxpayers. If we were to double teacher pay in the United States (leaving the number of teachers constant) the taxes of every U.S. household, whether or not it includes school-age children, would increase by an average of more than $1,000 per year, with middle-income taxpayers hit much harder than that. No survival-minded legislator will go there, which means we must find another way to resolve our teacher-pay issue. That way is a breakthrough in school design.
Boeing rolled out its first 777 aircraft only after 10,000 people had worked for years to design it. The company spent more than $3 billion spread across 200 different "design teams" working on various aspects of the plane, from the wings to the cockpit layout to the baggage bin. The result: a plane that is safer, easier to fly, more efficient and more comfortable -- a new design.
Now, ask yourself: Who designed our public schools? Where is the 777 of elementary schools or high schools? I am not speaking of buildings. By design, I mean every detail of a school's program -- curriculum, calendar, daily schedule, compensation, discipline, data systems, professional development (training, to school laymen). The truth is that our schools were not carefully designed. Virtually all of them are an inherited hodgepodge of programs and initiatives piled one on top of the other.
As legislators and superintendents come and go (with increasing frequency), schools look more and more like archeological digs, with sediments of partial designs from different regimes. In the whole course of American history, there has never been a school design effort that even remotely compared with what Boeing does for just one airplane.
What if we did design our schools on a clean slate and in an orderly and seriously funded way? Would there really be any difference? I believe so. To give you just one example, we might find a way to double teachers' pay without inciting a taxpayer rebellion.
America has about 3 million teachers in its public schools. What if we had a new school design that required only 1.5 million teachers but paid them double current levels? Does that mean class sizes would be doubled? Not necessarily; it's not what I would recommend. But it would be a way to force us to confront this thorny question: Is a class of 30 with a great teacher educationally inferior to a class of 15 with a so-so teacher?
But school designers of the future might choose instead to reduce by half the number of classes students attend, keeping class size static. Under such a plan students might spend just as much time -- or more -- in school, but it would be divided between "conventional classes" and new, independent learning programs (possibly similar to those being used in home-schooling programs today). This would be particularly applicable to middle and high schools.
If you're worried that 1.5 million teachers would lose their jobs through a new design, don't be. We currently lose that number of teachers every five years, largely because they find the old design (and its corresponding levels of pay) unsatisfactory. Through attrition alone, without a job lost, America could make the transition -- if we had new school designs as our destination.
Chris Whittle is the founder and chief executive of Edison Schools Inc. and the author of "Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education."