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Let's Tackle the Right Education Crisis

| April 2, 2012

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There's a national security crisis in U.S. education. I'm no history sleuth, but it must have come on fast just after February 2010. That’s when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent the last Quadrennial Defense Review up to Capitol Hill, with no mention of U.S. education at all. Two years later, in March 2012, Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice issued a report from the Council on Foreign Relations that declared American education to be so failed as to put U.S. national security at risk.

National security crises can arise suddenly. But education crises? Schooling kids is much as Max Weber once described politics — "a strong and slow boring of hard boards." You can lose a school building or a teacher overnight, but you don't fall into a national-security-like crisis by mid-morning recess. You don't get out of it by homeroom the next day, either.

American education today does feel like it's in crisis. But not the one Rice and Klein would have us believe. Klein and Rice say the problem is: "Johnny still can't read, 'rite or 'rithmetic." They say tests and standards are the fix. And like George Bush did down at Ground Zero after 9/11, they've gone to "The Pile," megaphone in hand, shouting the alarm. This time, though, it's not Saddam and WMD. It's China, Finland, Singapore and our schools.

Few doubt the utility of standards and testing. But as my colleague Stephen M. Walt wrote in his dissent to the Rice-Klein report, the data is all over the place. Last week, for example, we learned that 75 percent of students graduated high school on time, the highest rate in a decade. Progress through grade level is good. Graduation rates are climbing. More are headed to college than ever before.

If we're going to war, let's get the problem right.

There is a crisis in American education worth going after hard. It's one we can fix, and only a fool wouldn't want to, whether its draped in the American flag or just sitting there quietly waiting to wreak havoc. Almost 1 million K-12 teachers — 29 percent of U.S. public school teachers — say they plan to quit within the next five years. Two years ago it was 17 percent. For those teachers with six to 20 years on the job — the heart of the batting order — 40 percent now say they plan to wave the white flag.

How do we know? Because Pew and Harris Interactive told us so last month in the 28th annual MetLife "Survey of the American Teacher." Pew famously puts out the dullest, most obvious, least controversial survey findings imaginable. No one ever accused Pew of "rock piling" it.

But this was a stunner. Pay isn't the issue. Safety is all right. Teacher-parent engagement is up. With collaboration between teachers and parents strong, teachers feel they have parents' support and involvement. These are great soft indicators. So what's the beef? Teachers feel they're being asked to take a high-speed drill to a "strong slow boring of hard boards" problem just when the long, slow nurture of children has become all the more important to kids' success. America's teachers think we've got the problem — and the solution — wrong. Here's what Pew Harris found:

  • Kids and families are showing up for school less ready to learnbut schools can't close the readiness gap anymore. "Two-thirds (64%) of teachers," the Pew MetLife Report said, "reported that the number of students and families needing health and social support services has increased during the past 12 months." Yet with budget declines, class sizes are growing, services are shrinking, and facilities and technology are falling down or behind.
  • The pedagogy is getting dumbed down to teach to the test — and teachers are losing confidence that they can deliver educated children. "Many teachers," Pew MetLlife reports, "are concerned that their classrooms have become so mixed in terms of student learning abilities that they cannot teach them effectively."
  • With schools in crisis, collaboration matters more than ever but new performance measures reward individual performance. Just when all hands on deck matters most, Pew MetLife reports, teachers witness a return to the industrial-age models that "emphasize assessing the effectiveness of teachers individually."
  • And Donald ("You're fired!") Trump is heading up HR. In 2006, 8 percent of teachers felt their jobs were insecure. Five years later, Pew MetLife reports, that number quadrupled to 34 percent.

With U.S. schools increasingly under the equivalent of quarterly earnings pressure, teachers have become a classic case of what Harvard professor Malcolm Sparrow calls "failing the Crush Test." We’ve handed teachers a problem so wrong-sized and wrong-shaped that it feels overwhelming.

What's the answer? Let's start with Wegmans, the grocery chain. As David Rohde recently documented, the privately held company puts its 42,000 employees' satisfaction first and translates that into great results — as it's been doing since 1916. This year Fortune rated Wegmans the fourth-best place to work in the U.S. Wal-Mart didn't crack the top 100. How many of our 42,000-employee school districts would?

Great public leaders energize their rank-and-file, too. They can't promise big bucks, and most public employees couldn't care less. Yes, they like job security and benefits. But the secret sauce that supercharges teachers, cops, social workers and others? It's the chance to do what they showed up to do the very first day on the job. Help make kids smart and successful. Keep neighborhoods safe. Bring families back from crisis.

"Unleashing change," Harvard professor Steve Kelman calls it. Let teachers teach. Give them a vision and a plan that works. Help them put all that passion on targets they believe in, and they will deliver results that astound.

Anthony Alvarado did exactly this. He turned two troubled New York City school districts around and amassed a reputation with teachers and administrators, students and parents as one of the great superintendents of New York, ever. Every performance indicator rose. All clamored to get into his schools. "We love Tony," said the UFT.

That took 11 years — a long, slow boring. When Alvarado tried to replicate high performance on a fast track in San Diego, he was gone in four. In the race to the top he moved too far too fast, lost teachers' support and outran his political headlights. You can move fast — but only as fast as you can engage, energize and get teachers moving with you.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tumin, Zachary.“Let's Tackle the Right Education Crisis.” Reuters, April 2, 2012.

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