Education is Everything: 5 Ways to Fix Education in the US

A high school buddy of mine is trying to fix Facebook by encouraging civil discourse. God bless you, Bun. Seriously. And his first effort to that end was to ask his friends for “the top five action items you want to see in order to improve the American educational system.” I’ve got three kids in public school and I’ve worked in the K-12 ed tech industry for over a decade now, so the question got me revved up. In fact, it was the perfect trigger for me to put down some thoughts that have been percolating in my head for a long time. And I can write them down, publish them, and pretend people will read them because, well, the Internet.

There are a few caveats to these opinions to start off. First, my opinions are primarily focused on K-12 public education. That doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t major issues in higher ed, I’m just more tuned into K-12. I work in the K-12 space, and all three of my kids are in the public school system right now. Once I start cutting tuition checks, I’ll probably have stronger opinions about that higher ed. There’s also a heavy bias here towards state and federal poilcy as opposed to classroom-level practice. That’s mostly because I think it’s hard to universalize my wish list at the classroom level. Localities and schools have such different needs, that it’s easier to think broadly about what the *system* needs, even though the more direct and immediate impacts are always going to be made at the individual level between educators and students.

First, elevate the teaching profession. Pay teachers more. A LOT more. And, at the same time, give schools and districts the flexibility to pay their best teachers even more. These two things are linked, and they apply at both the state and district level. Too often, I feel like one side is arguing to increase teacher pay and the other side is arguing for “pay for performance.” To me, this has always been an obvious example of both/and instead of either/or. Next, make the credentialing process simpler RIGHT NOW. Over time, as the financial incentives begin to draw more candidates into teaching, raise the bar for entry.

These three recommendations are strongly linked together. District school boards should use increased pay as a bargaining chip to get more flexibility from the unions. “We’ll significantly increase the average teachers’ salary, but in exchange we want the flexibility to financially reward our best teachers.” And you can’t easily raise the bar for teacher certification unless and until you’ve got more people wanting to be teachers because there’s more money in it.

Second, can we please focus on the classroom? The political debate over Common Core in this country breaks my heart. It also raises my blood pressure (It is not Obama’s fault that you can’t help your kid with his math homework!!), but that’s another story altogether. The Common Core debate breaks my heart not because I have a deep and abiding love for the Common Core State standards themselves, but because it was such a misguided waste of time, energy, and political will. The right found a convenient bogeyman with a rhetorical ring (“Obamacore”) and the left decided to use Common Core to rally their base against over-testing. In the end, both sides missed the point and spent a disproportionate amount of their political capital fighting Common Core instead of working on changes that could actually make a difference. Setting common standards across state is a valuable exercise. The real magic, though, happens in the classroom. The standards we set have an indirect impact (at best) on real education outcomes. I wish we could all just agree to set national standards and let localities focus on the more important stuff — curriculum, teaching, and learning.

Third, maintain federal funding for underserved and disadvantaged students. When I first wrote this, HR 610 had not yet been introduced. The first sentence of that bill (which is all of 236 words) says, “This bill repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.” ESEA is a landmark piece of legislation that contains, among other things, substantial federal funding for disadvantaged students. Granted, the policies and procedures of ESEA are a tangled mess of bureaucracy, but repealing it this way would be a huge mistake. Generally speaking, I’m a pretty big fan of allowing states govern themselves, but when it comes to providing an equitable education to all students, I think this federal nudge is not only appropriate but incredibly valuable. Decisions about teacher licensing, curriculum, and a host of other policies should absolutely be left to the states. But this critical protection for underserved and disadvantaged students is absolutely appropriate and necessary to maintain at the federal level.

Fourth on my list is a gradual increase in thoughtful, well-regulated school choice. Choice is not a panacea, but it can and should be a part of the education policy infrastructure. As long as there are appropriate policies to hold schools accountable for delivering a high quality education, allowing parents and student the power to choose how and where they get their education is a positive step in the right direction.

Finally, I want to see an increased investment in early childhood education. The research here is compelling. The ROI on investments in early childhood education is better than almost any other economic intervention available. It’s a much longer payoff period, but making long-term investments is part of what we need from government. And we can do it in a way that doesn’t intrude on people who want control over their children’s early lives.

There’s very few things that are more important than education. To quote the best TV show of all-time, “Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything.” And these are just the top five out of 20+ things that we should be working on right now.

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