Nicholas Kristof in a recent article, Our Greatest National Shame in the New York Times has declared that fixing our national educational system is even more important than fixing our national health system.
Kristof claims that many innovators are doing many of the right things at the K-8 level, though he is not certain that they can be "scaled up". The real problem he states is with High Schools.
What is the problem? First, great teachers count much more than anything else. The important attribute is a kind of 'withitness' that connects teachers to their charges. This counts more than prior education or intelligence or SAT scores.
Second, our current way of selecting teachers has nothing whatsoever to do with this. There is a huge disconnect between the marks of a promising teacher and the criteria we use (teacher certificates, Praxis exam scores). So we should scrap all of that! (That's a great idea, but for Kristof is merely a throwaway line).
Now, while noting that the disconnect between relevant criteria and actual selection practice exists primarily at the K-8 level and the real problem is with High School, he cannot seriously think that teaching algebra or physics or other demanding secondary school disciplines has more to do with 'withitness' than with understanding algebra or physics, which in turn must have something to do with prior educational achievements and even SAT scores.
Moreover, his solution to the problem is more effective measures for good teachers. I should think that this mistaken idea is how we got into all of this stuff about graduate record exams, certification require ments and Praxis exams in the first place.
How about a radical solution: stop measuring teachers. Go after a bunch of 'with it' folks, and for high schools, also very smart and highly educated ones. Rely on general criteria and human judgment to select them -- that's what 'with it' types do and trust.
That said, the “national educational system” Kristof refers to does not even exist, never has, and with any luck, never will. Unless I misread the constitution, education is a reserved power of the states.
The federal government has until recently been very chary about centralizing educational authority. It has tended to couch its interventions as aide to the states on issues of overwhelming national importance such as vocational education and national security.
No Child Left Behind and its kindred efforts are unconstitutional on their face, as many state level officials acknowledge. For the most part states have fallen in line because without federal money they cannot provide what a contemporary education requires. I do not know a single educational administrator at any level that thinks NCLB is anything but a disaster.
Where the federal government can be helpful is not in offering further intrusions into state educational efforts, more tresting requirements, more standardization, but rather in offering inducements to states to modernize the entire apparatus of state governance to establish "smart" educational networks much as we are now working on smart buildings and smart energy grids.
The best starting point is to realize that most of the really important learning resources from communications media to museums and universities, serve entire regions. The region, not the arbitrary school district, should be the organizing unit of smart schools. Let's encourage the states to establish regional consortia and to fade out the monopoly of the local school districts. As the central cities and suburbs become ever more differentiated by social class, the local districts are no more than the means to manage and perpetuate educational inequality.
Multi-district regional schools, under regional authority established by the states, have created amazing models for regional schools. The Harrisburg PA High School of Creative and Performing Arts, run by a consortium of 29 districts as a regional charter school, draws on all of the arts infrastructure of the region and draws kids from both poor central cities and rich suburbs. Internet technology can further enhance the scope and reach of schools under regional authority.
As in the case of charter schools, targeted federal incentives can move the states to create more of these regional solutions.
Meanwhile, pumping all of the stimulus money into "scaling up" ideas into coercive federal programs operating through the local districts only keeps gross educational inequality in place.