Quality Education Reform Starts in the States

Published in The Hill

Conservatives and liberals alike may rejoice at the notion that 2015 brings with it a chance to revamp the controversial 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will be the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and has said that his top priority is a revision of NCLB.

Alexander is on the right track. The top issue facing our country is the education of our children, and it’s clear that however well intentioned NCLB was, it’s not producing the desired effects. To improve America’s schools we need to first work on the people issues: teaching, leadership and governance. But we need to do so at the statehouse, not in Washington, D.C.

There is much debate today about the quality of our public schools and what we should do to make them better. Today, we lose 7,000 kids a school day as they drop out; almost 1.3 million students a year.  We are creating a massive underclass of citizens who are likely to be a liability to all of us. Today, 57 percent of dropouts are unemployed; 65 percent of those incarcerated in our prisons are high school dropouts.  The U.S. ranks 20th in high school graduation and 24th in college graduation. China graduates 10 times as many engineers a year as the United States. Of those engineers we do graduate, half are foreign students.

Most of what you hear is that we need more money and lower class sizes. But we have tried that and it hasn’t worked. We now spend three times as much per child in inflation-adjusted dollars as we did in 1970. We also have four times as many adults in our schools with only 8 percent more children.  But test scores have barely changed and the drop-out rate has not improved in any dramatic fashion. Obviously money and staff are not the answer.

It is the system and the people who populate it that need to change.  If we want to lower our debt, reduce unemployment, reform the juvenal justice system, shrink the incarceration rate and the cost of prisons and lower medical costs, we must effectively educate our children.  Fixing our schools is the single most effective thing we can do to accomplish that. And the most effective way to tackle the issue is at the state level. Here are three policy prescriptions that will put our country back on track.

First, we have to improve the quality of teachers.  Today teaching is the easiest profession to enter.  All you need is a high school diploma and money for tuition. Because we have so many education schools, to apply is to get in, to get in is to graduate and to graduate is to get hired.  Three years later you have tenure.  Today, the college with the lowest SAT scores on any campus is the education school.  It should be the highest.

The culprit is certification laws.  These laws gave education schools a monopoly over the supply of human capital that can work in our schools. Like any monopoly, over time they become atrophied, inefficient and ineffective. They keep our best and brightest out of the profession.   If we eliminated these laws, schools could hire the best people for the job.  Education schools would have to improve to justify their existence or go out of business. Certification laws are a state issue, not a federal issue.

We must also improve leadership.  A quality principal will give you a quality school.  However, certification laws again hinder our ability to hire top leaders for our schools.  To be a principal today, you need only have taught for two-to-three years and have tuition for a one-year principal program at an education school.  You don’t have to have been a good teacher, you don’t have to have any proven leadership qualities and you don’t need letters of recommendation.  In other words, you don’t need to be qualified.  In our schools, we get effective leadership by accident, not by design.

Also, improved leadership will reduce the power of unions. Union membership has grown exponentially in the government sector and particularly in our schools.  Today, public education is the largest government employment program with the strongest unions.  With effective management, we could hope to see a slow mitigation of union power as teachers came to understand they no longer needed union protection.

We also must address governance, not just leadership. We need high quality, competent people governing our schools.   In urban systems, I would recommend going to appointed school boards or even eliminating them altogether and have the superintendent become part of the mayor’s cabinet.   Schools are the most important institution in any city and most mayors have no control over them; changing the governance structure is a state issue, not a federal issue.

Note: none of the above suggestions require additional money.

Trying to change the system without first improving the people has been proven to be a waste of time.  Improving the people will automatically start the change of the system, as quality people would not tolerate the system we have now.

Educating all of our children should be our highest priority and improving the people in the existing system is the first place to start. We need a governor and a state legislature to start the process.

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Chairman, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Chairman of the Institute's program on public education reform. For nearly 30 years, he has devoted his life work to transforming public education. For two years, he traveled the country studying America's public education system and authored, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education. Mr. Nielsen was awarded the Harvard Business School's 2004 Alumni Achievement Award. In 2009, he received the Leadership Award from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.