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Opinion: Philanthropy Needs to Promote Real Change in Education

Resource type: News

Chronicle of Philanthropy |

Original Source

By Marc S. Tucker

We pay more per pupil for our elementary- and secondary-education system than any other industrialized country except Switzerland, yet the United States ranks near the bottom in performance. For the price they pay, Americans should expect the learning equivalent of a Lexus. Instead, we’re bumping along in a Chevy Nova while our economic competitors zoom past us, fueled by well-educated work forces.

If education were a product and the United States were a corporation, we would try and figure out how other nations manage to succeed where we have clearly failed, and then beat them at their own game. Instead, many of America’s leading donors are lavishing their money on social entrepreneurs whose small, innovative programs don’t have a prayer of dealing with the problem at the scale that is needed.

Among the best known of these entrepreneurs are people like Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, which recruits graduates of elite universities to spend two years teaching at some of the country’s worst schools. The line of limousines gathered for a recent fund-raising benefit the group held in New York reportedly went around an entire city block at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Five million dollars was raised in one night. Other well-known entrepreneurs include Green Dot and KIPP(Knowledge Is Power Program), which operate charter schools.

Those are all worthwhile organizations, no question about it. Their leaders are smart, visionary, and very dedicated. But as exemplary as they are, small programs like these are not equal to the task.Teach for America accounts for just two-tenths of 1 percent of the new teachers entering our schools every year. The entire enrollment of the Green Dot schools is no larger than the enrollment of one typical high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. KIPP schools, the object of enormous attention in the national news media, has an enrollment equal to three-hundredths of 1 percent of the 92,000 public schools in the United States.

The foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals who support these organizations are well-intentioned, but their efforts amount to boutique grant making personally gratifying to those engaged in it, but irrelevant in practical terms compared with the education challenges the United States faces.

Other countries have not built highly effective and very efficient school systems by financing a handful of small, disruptive interventions. Not at all. They have developed policies that get results. It is the structure of those systems that account for their effectiveness.

To those of us who have studied these nations in detail for years, there is no mystery about what has to be done. America, too, needs to recruit teachers from the top one-third to one-fifth of college graduates. To get them, we need to pay them as much as the other professions they could just as easily choose to go into: medicine, law, architecture, accounting, engineering, and so on. We need to make sure the best of them can do very well for themselves without leaving teaching. We need to give them the same kind of control over the way their services are delivered to their clients as the other professions have over theirs, and that will mean turning virtually all of the decisions as to how the schools are run over to them.

By handsomely rewarding school faculties that produce smashing gains for their students and closing schools that fail to make strong progress, we can ensure that handing over the decision making is a wise move. But, if we do that, we will be making a big mistake if we continue to measure student progress with the cheap, minimum-competency tests the states now use. We need instead to adopt high-quality board examinations like those the most successful countries use, which can measure a student’s grasp of the concepts underlying the subject, the student’s creativity and capacity for innovation, as well as the student’s knowledge and ability to apply what he or she has learned to real-world problems. As many other countries have done long ago, we need to shift our financing system away from a reliance on the local property tax and toward a system that makes sure each and every student has the resources needed to get to internationally benchmarked standards.

That is not a list of modest changes; taken together, they constitute a major redesign of the American education system, a system that got its last redesign some 100 years ago.

Nonprofit leaders are no match for such a comprehensive approach. Imagine if the United States relied on elite, committed, but mostly short-tenured twenty-something volunteers to help solve comparable national crises such as the search for sustainable energy, or if the nation had done the same thing in response to the challenge posed by Sputnik. The idea is laughable. Yet that is precisely how we have dealt with the problem of our inadequate education system.

Nonprofit-run schools are not the solution. The solution is to completely change our education system in the United States as we know it today. A growing number of other countries are beating the pants off America not by financing a few attractive entrepreneurs, but by adopting state-of-the-art systems of education designed to make a difference to every student in their country.

President-elect Barack Obama and many of the other new leaders taking office this month talked on the campaign trail about the need for change and to put this nation on a new course. Policy makers have the power to change American education, and for less money than it might seem. Two years ago, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued a report titled “ Tough Choices or Tough Times,” which called for a top to bottom shake-up of the education system.

When the entire system is put in place, the net increased cost will be almost zero. To get there, an initial investment of about $60-billion a year is required—roughly a tenth of the cost of the war in Iraq since 2003. Among other things, this level of investment would enable us to pay our teachers about $100,000 annually, start school for most children at age 3, and greatly increase the amount of money available to educate our most disadvantaged students. The report shows how, as these investments are made, the country could reduce other expenditures now being made on our schools in an almost equal amount, saving enough to virtually offset the additional expenses.

There you have it: good value for a fair price, something education donors want as much as any other American. To get it, they must shift their attention from financing cameo programs to putting their money into groups that influence public policy. That’s where the payoff is.

Marc S. Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Washington.