Keys to successful education system

Posted: Monday, January 04, 2010

Ten years ago, deep in the Rio Grande Valley, two 23-year-old Teach for America teachers opened an after-school tutoring program. Through sheer force of will, the program became a public charter school, housed on the second floor of a local church. Eventually, that school became a cluster of 12 schools, serving kids from Colonias - communities so impoverished that some lack potable water.

IDEA College Prep graduated its first high school class in 2007 with 100 percent of the seniors headed to college. Last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked it No. 13 among America's public high schools.

"It's not magical resources," IDEA Principal Jeremy Beard told me. "It's the thinking around the problem. I have no control over what goes in on in the kids' Colonia. But we can create a culture. Kids here feel part of a family, part of a team, part of something special."

I have worked in education for most of the past 17 years, as a first-grade teacher, as an education lawyer and, currently, for Teach for America. I used to be married to the Washington schools chancellor. And the views expressed here are mine alone.

I tell the IDEA story because too often when we look at the sorry state of public education (on the most recent international benchmark exam conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. high schoolers ranked 25th out of 30 industrialized nations in math and 24th in science) we believe the results are driven by factors beyond our control, such as funding and families. This leads to lethargy, which leads to inaction, which perpetuates a broken system that contributes to our economic decline.

Last year, McKinsey & Co. monetized the cost of our international achievement gap. Our education system's poor results cost the country $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion a year, it found - as much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stimulus package (begin ital) combined (end ital). America cannot afford this kind of failure. We must make this the decade of education reform.

Of course, if an instant solution existed, we wouldn't be in this bind. Still, the answers are not unknown. They basically boil down to people, policies and parents.

First, while many great people work in education today, the talent pool needs to be upgraded. This requires better entries and exits from the system. School districts must aggressively recruit top talent, make the work more desirable by increasing and differentiating pay for high-performers, put individual schools in greater control of their workforces, and hold teacher and principal prep programs accountable for their graduates' performance.

Doing those things also requires taking seriously who needs to leave the system. An analysis published last month by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek on the worst teachers in this country - the bottom 6 to 10 percent in terms of advancing student learning - found that replacing those teachers with educators of average quality would catapult the United States from the bottom of PISA's international rankings into the top 10. Hanushek notes that the majority of our teachers are competitive with teachers anywhere but that the system nationwide is dragged down by the impact of the bottom rung.

Next, we need policies explicitly driven by transparent data on student achievement and designed to foster more research and development in schools and districts. The $4 billion Race to the Top Fund, a program in which states compete for stimulus-funded grant money, is an excellent start; Congress should make it an annual grant program.

Finally, parents need to take the reins. There are about 50 million children in U.S. public schools, and their parents can and should win every political battle. The key is asking the right questions, rooting everything in what is good for students. Will this teacher/ school/ policy help my child learn? Most important, can I see the data, please? School by school, district by district, parents must enter the fray and demand what is best for their children, rather than letting adult needs drive policy. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., whom I have known and admired since his days running the Denver Public Schools, has said, "To me the burden of proof is not on the people who want to change the system, the burden of proof is on people who want to keep it the same."

It's a new decade. Let's get to work.

• Kevin Huffman, executive vice president for public affairs at Teach for America, won The Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest.

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