Initial thoughts on fixing US public education

Ok, the first thing I want to share is a few premises. These are determined by a lot of different books, articles and statistical analyses and from this point forward I am considering them facts. If you want to disagree or argue with these premises I completely understand, but it is based on these that my ideas come from. Most of them are correlations rather than causations, so if you want to provide an alternative theory as to what actually causes the correlation, I am open to that as well. Also, most of these are looking backwards on a large society wide scale. They may or may not be the case moving forward, but they have actually already happened and I believe/agree with the interpretations.

Also, for the purposes of this discussion I am going to use the word 'success' a lot and for now we are going to assume that means something on the scale of being admitted to a four year college, graduating from a four year college, adult salary and/or lifetime earnings, not committing crimes or going to jail. Something on that scale that has the data for long term studies. It may or may not look at standardized test scores, but overall, those are not a great indicator of success of the student, teacher, or system. We are not looking at happiness or contentedness with life, getting married, having kids, etc. According to this definition becoming a plumber who provides for a family is actually a failure of the education system if he did not go to college.

Last preface, my mom teaches first grade, so while I understand her situation on an individual basis (time she spends on tasks, what she pays for out of pocket, how difficult parents are), there is a good chance I would disagree with her on large scale changes.

-One of the biggest indicators of success is socioeconomic status.
-One of the biggest indicators of children going to college is whether or not their parents went to college.
-A good analysis I agree with showed that a cause (not necessarily the only cause) of the difference above differences comes in the summer. Higher socioeconomic student barely gain, or at least don't lose skills over the summer. Lower socioeconomic student lose a measurable difference in their skills over the summer. This makes a huge difference over 12 years. During the school year, lower socioeconomic student do just as well, if not better, than higher socioeconomic students.
-Very few schools or systems have found a strategy that works (although there are a few lottery based charter schools that are showing good early results. These are featured in Waiting For Superman and the kids often are at school more days and longer hours than a traditional school year)
-Increasing funding to a school or district does not increase the success of those students.
-Years of teacher experience do not improve success of those students.
-Advance degrees by teachers do not improve success of those students.
-Bonuses [or really, performance based pay] for teachers (like good results on standardized testing) do not work.
-One of the biggest indicators of how well a student will improve from one year to the next is the individual teacher. But it is really hard to measure what makes a good teacher. Genuinely caring about the success of the student seems to be one aspect that makes a big difference. The children themselves (even as young as kindergarten or first grade) are one of the better barometers of the quality of the teacher. (At least better than parents or principals)

A couple of quick correlations that help make an interesting point:
If you take two families and everything about them is the same except for one fact:
1) If the parents take their children to the library regularly while the other family does not, there is no difference in the success of the children.
2) The parents of one family have books in the house, while the other does not, the children with books in the house will be more successful. (Notice that I didn't say the parents read those books to the children. That is a different variable.)

These two correlations are pretty accurate and my personal take on them. It does speak a little to the socioeconomic difference between the two families. Maybe one family is more readily able to buy books and the other is not. I also think it plays in to what the parents want of the kids. Making HUGE assumptions, let's say the library-going family (family A) isn't able to afford to buy books or there aren't books the parents care to read, but they want their kids to like reading. It can be assumed that the parents in family A probably didn't go to college. But they want their kids to go to college. They are HOPING their kids go to college. The parents that owns books and like reading themselves probably did go to college and they EXPECT their kids to go to college. I think there is an important and subtle distinction that has huge implications across many families and society as a whole. I KNOW my daughter will go to college because I expect her to. She is going to do everything necessary to get into a good college.

Now, my initial ideas on how to improve education:
1) Get rid of teacher tenure. It becomes increasingly more expensive and removes an incentive for teachers to try hard. It is ok if government/civil employees are treated more like private sector employees.
2) Increase days in the school year and hours in the school day. I think we can expect more of our kids and they will catch up to our expectations. This may be the biggest hurdle because it will initially be expensive, but I think in the long run, there are two direct results of this kind of investment. One, working class families will have to worry less about childcare while they are working. Childcare is really, REALLY expensive. And the ones that need it the most are the uneducated single moms working two jobs. These parents will be more productive workers (increasing tax revenue) and better spenders (a big part of the US economy). Second, the children will grow up and be better workers. If we are adding 3 months worth of education time to their schedules the leaps we see in the abilities of school age children will be HUGE. I mean, we are adding a full extra grade for every 3-4 years. We will be teaching calculus in 8th and 9th grade. We can probably start teaching a variety of business/sales/marketing principles in high school so that even the individuals who don't want to go to college (or can't) could start their own business and still be successful. Having three summer months off is a relic of a school system designed around children working on a farm in the summer. How many people under 40 have ever touched a tractor? Also, if you have teachers getting paid at the same rate, but make sure they are working the same 2000 hours per year (40 hours/wk, 50 weeks per year) that everyone else works, they won't be complaining about the low pay ever again.

3) Figure out a way to reward successful teachers. THIS is the hardest part. [You know, other than figuring out how to increase the education budget by 30-50%] You can't use standardized test scores and probably not principal or parent observation. You might be able to use exit interviews (or on going evaluations) by students, but it's hard to get people to agree their pay increases should be determined by 6 and 7 year olds.

Ok, that is enough to get the discussion going. I'm ready to hear how politics is going to make all this super impractical.


  1. As far as your last statement, I think you've already identified what makes this impractical: where does the money come from? Are we doing these assumptions from the starting point of a limitless budget? Or are we trying to come up with something implementable?

    Another clarification about your plan - when you said "lengthen the number of days and hours in the school year," are you in fact suggesting we have school year-round with no summer break? Fill in those 3 months with wall-to-wall schooling for 50 weeks?

  2. I want to talk about the starting premises also. You say at one point, "One of the biggest indicators of how well a student will improve from one year to the next is the individual teacher."

    How is this indicator determined? For you to make this statement, presumably somebody had to quantify "how much a teacher cares" and compare that from teacher to teacher and student to student. So how was that done, for this study? Why can't we replicate whatever that process was, to determine this?

    Do you or Waiting for Superman have any stats on non-classroom activities and their impact on children's education? For instance, does participating in after-school activities (sports, clubs, etc.) have any impact?

    You already point out the books in the home thing, which I find fascinating. I think you're right in correlating both that and the parents-going-to-college correlation with parents' expectations for their kids. In other words, the biggest CAUSE for kids' success is their parents' expectations for them. Which is visible in these other, quantifiable stats like "books in the house" or "parents went to college". Fair or unfair statement?

  3. 1) Yes, I think school should go eight hours a day, 50 weeks a year, minus national holidays.

  4. 2) I think I need to clarify because I mixed up a couple ideas in the premises:
    -Measuring year to year improvement is done by test scores. Like it or not, this is currently the best we have.
    -"Better" schools have minimal impact on child success, but "better" teachers do have an impact on the year to year improvement by children.
    -Providing bonuses to teachers for better test scores by their students has led to cheating and is already considered an ineffective form of teacher compensation.

    So if better/charter/private schools are presumably paying their teachers more than public schools, but not getting better results, what is getting better results? Along with advanced degrees and seniority/tenure, it seems pretty consistent that increasing teacher pay by any current standard does not improve student learning, but it does increase the financial burden of the education system.

  5. 3) The having books in the home vs. actually reading to your children is just one quick example of a lot of recent research that is kind of in the nature vs. nurture debate. More and more it shown to be the case that the actions the parents take for their children have minimal impact on their children as they grow up, but the behavior and lifestyle of the parent has a much bigger impact. But this is so much more than just the genetics. I think it has a lot to do with what the children observe the parents doing. Kids don't read a lot (and go to college) because their parents told them to read. They do it because they see their parents reading on their own. It is the lifestyle and values of the parents and what they actually do that has the biggest impact on children. Kids eat unhealthy food and don't exercise because their parents eat junk and don't exercise. My kid isn't going to college because I told her to go to college. My kid is going to college because she is going to grow up hearing me talk about college and she is going to see me studying for more and more tests and working on advanced degrees/certifications/designations, etc.

  6. Jessica pointed out that 50 weeks may be slightly impractical, considering I only work 49 weeks a year. But that was an arbitrary number. I'd be ok with 44-48 weeks per school year. 2 weeks off in December, 2 in April and 2 in August. What's that? 46 weeks in the school year? That sound pretty good.