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Education Reform: Obvious Lessons from Overseas

June 8, 2011

The greatest innovations in the world always seem so obvious. Every time something outstanding is created, everyone says, “how come I didn’t think of that?”

True brilliance is so profound that we can’t fathom how we ever lived without it. When stated plainly, a great idea is so clearly correct that doing something any other way would be absurd. But while the answer is obvious in hindsight, the reason everyone wonders why they didn’t think of it first is because we are notoriously narrow-minded when trying to find solutions to a problem.

For example, Henry Ford famously stated that if he had listened to his customers, he would have never invented the Model T, but rather a faster horse. That is why Henry Ford was a visionary and most of us are not. We’re too narrow-minded to see the real answer to a problem until it is right there in front of us.

Well, in the case of America’s mangled education system, it seems the answer is right in front of us. So why are we still trying to mend a gaping wound with a butterfly band-aid?

John Merrow, Huffington Post columnist and Education Correspondent for PBS NewsHour, recently wrote this article in which he discusses a paper put out by the National Center for Education and the Economy that “contrasts the approaches taken by five high performing (but quite different) entities –Toronto, Japan, Norway, Shanghai and Singapore — with what we have been doing here [in the United States].”

The following excerpt from Mr. Merrow’s article sets the stage perfectly:

“The essential message: those places aren’t doing any of the stuff we have focused on — charter schools, alternate certification, small classes and pay for performance, to name a few of our ‘magic bullets.’ Instead, they have developed comprehensive systems: their teachers are drawn from the top of the class, are trained carefully and, if hired, are paid like other professionals. They spend more on the children who are the toughest to educate, they diagnose and intervene at the first sign of trouble, they expect their best teachers to work in the toughest schools, and they expect all students to achieve at high levels. They do not rely heavily on machine-scored multiple choice tests but are inclined to trust and respect the judgements of teachers. Their curriculum is coherent across the system, which eliminates problems created by students moving around.”

While we’re scrambling to create programs to cover up a system-wide ineptitude, these other entities are outperforming us with a stronger long-term strategy.

Again, in the words of Merrow, “In the U.S. we don’t have one system, or even 50 systems. We believe in these aforementioned magic bullets, whether it’s charter schools, alternative certification, small classes, pay-for-performance or Teach for America. The others have comprehensive systems that have evolved over years. They benchmark carefully and make changes as necessary to remain competitive.”

 The problem with America’s education system is that there’s no quick fix. We’ve been running the wrong race for decades now. To truly rehabilitate our education system, we must take a more comprehensive approach by creating a transparent and cohesive curriculum, and paying teachers a lucrative amount according to their merit.

With a comprehensive system in place, imagine what would happen if teachers were paid even 10% of what we pay our professional athletes? Our brightest minds would compete to be teachers instead of Silicon Valley CEOs, and our malleable youth could see the profitable potential of long-term education over get-rich-quick schemes.

When we finally get our act together and completely reform our education system, we will all look back and wonder how we ever managed to do it any other way. It will seem so obvious. Hopefully we’ll remember that once upon a time it wasn’t.

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