The latest OECD report on education results in rich countries is out, and as usual there is little good news for the US. The Economist tells all:
Many of the 20 leading economic performers in the OECD doubled or tripled their education spending in real terms between 1970 and 1994, yet outcomes in many countries stagnated—or went backwards. Educational performance varies widely even among countries that spend similar amounts per pupil. Such spending is highest in the United States—yet America lags behind other developed countries on overall outcomes in secondary education…So what are the secrets of success? Though there is no one template, four important themes emerge: decentralisation (handing power back to schools); a focus on underachieving pupils; a choice of different sorts of schools; and high standards for teachers…Of the four chief elements of schools reform, diversity of supply is by far the most striking. From New York to Shanghai to Denmark, schools free of government control and run by non-state providers are adding quality to the mix. To date, they seem most successful where the state has been unwilling or unable to make a difference.
As a young sprout I first saw the differences in American and British education first hand when after a little more than five years in US public schools I went to the sixth grade in the UK. To my shock, sixth grade kids there were starting Latin, Algebra and French, to say nothing of history classes much more challenging than our compulsory year’s study of North Carolina history in the Old North State. The kids in my UK classes didn’t seem any smarter or by nature harder working than my friends in the US, but kids often rise to the challenges set before them, and the Brits and the Americans at that time had very different ideas about what sixth graders were capable of doing.charter school movement is one helpful response – but it isn’t the sole solution. Utilizing technology cuts outdated corners and keeps innovation at the forefront. Improving the quality of teaching is equally important. Teachers unions that protect and institutionalize poor performance are hurting students, but rather than unremitting teacher bashing what we need is to produce and then nurture, cherish and reward good teachers. The Economist also reports:
An emphasis on better teacher quality is a common feature of all reforms. Countries like Finland and South Korea make life easier for themselves by recruiting only elite graduates, and paying them accordingly… America has experimented at state level with merit pay and payment by results, but often in the teeth of opposition from the teachers’ unions.
The teacher unions as presently organized are more often part of the problem than part of the solution. But ultimately the system won’t work without strong, experienced teachers who have the respect of their students and of the community. We don’t need a nation of teacher-automatons teaching to tests devised by Washington bureaucrats; we need a nation of teachers and principals who want to teach, know how to teach and have the freedom to teach as they judge best — and when they succeed, they should be well rewarded for important work.