Fixing the broken education system

Mar 29 2011 by James M. Kerr Print This Article

The U.S. education system is broken and it doesn't look like it will fix itself. In fact, if fundamental reform isn't undertaken soon, it is very likely that U.S. businesses will find themselves grossly short-handed in the coming years. There's nothing more strategic today than business leaders taking the steps necessary to ensure that there remains an ample pool of qualified and educated workers at the ready to staff the businesses of tomorrow.

If you disagree with the premise that there's nothing more strategic than overhauling the education system in the United States, please contemplate these facts.

The United States spends over $885 billion annually on public education. But despite this investment, almost 30 per cent of American students do not finish high school.

The U.S. ranks 20th worldwide in Reading Literacy; 18th worldwide in Mathematical Literacy and 14th worldwide in Scientific Literacy. It also ranks second worldwide – behind Ireland - in terms of highest percentage of students whom find school to be boring (at 61%).

Meanwhile, by 2018, almost two-thirds of all U.S. jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education - meaning that we will need some 22 million new workers with post-secondary degrees to fill those jobs. Yet the U.S. education system will produce just over 18 million post-secondary school graduates in that timeframe – resulting in a shortfall of over three million.

Why Is This Happening

It's the schools stupid!

It all begins in kindergarten. There's overwhelming evidence that directly correlates teaching proficiency with desired outcomes. Certainly, home life and adult involvement and supervision in a child's education are factors. However, nothing beats exceptional teaching for motivating children to learn and enabling continued educational advancement—and that starts early. Without a sufficient foundation in the early years, children cannot progress and excel in the later years which contributes to drop-out rates and an under educated populace.

Why has teaching quality diminished? There are a myriad of answers to this questions. However, let's not discount the fact that teacher unions have outlived their usefulness. Teacher unions were a convention needed in the early 20th Century to guard against unfair treatment of mostly woman teachers by mostly male administrators. Our society has evolved away from needing such protections for our teachers.

Today, these unions, and the tenure clauses that they protect, result in the following three realities that inhibit the quality of the teaching that is provided in today's public schools.

First, unions shield less effective teachers from any scrutiny or need to improve – leaving a fairly short bar to clear in regard to teaching quality and educational outcomes.

Second, school administrators are unable to offer "pay for performance" incentives (that better teachers would enjoy), which limits the earning potential of the teachers that the unions represent.

And finally, the profession's limited earning potential makes the pursuit of a teaching career less attractive to some of the brightest and most ambitious college students considering a career path.

Generally speaking, school systems are left with uninspired employees that have little incentive (except those whom are self-motivated) to improve or grow professionally.

It's no wonder that outcomes are better in schools where unions and tenure are not a factor. Numerous studies have compared what happens when students with identical backgrounds attend independent (where teacher unions are not in place) versus public schools.

In study after study, the matched peers who shift to independent or private schools fare better than those that remain in public schools. In fact the most recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that "in all categories, private schools had higher average scores in reading, mathematics, science, and writing than their counterparts in public schools."

Higher student achievement is clearly attributable to some difference in the way independent schools instruct. So if the current public education model is not working, what can be done?

Introduce Competition

To think that the current system will self-correct and remedy the situation – magically producing a highly educated workforce for tomorrow's businesses – is pure folly. Rather, business leaders must take matters into their own hands to ensure a different outcome. Private enterprise must pull together to force needed change.

This suggestion is not a radical idea. In fact, we are already seeing businesses taking steps towards reshaping education through programs like GE's Developing Futures, Oracle's Education Foundation and HP's Catalyst Initiatives. The challenge is that these programs are attempting to work within the existing public school model to affect change.

The results have been modest. Certainly, needy school districts are being awarded computers and efforts at promoting remote schooling are being enabled through the kinds of programs listed above. But, fundamental change in the way that the country delivers education is only being indirectly addressed through these philanthropic programs.

Time For Corporate Taxpayer Revolt

Business leaders need to bust the current paradigm and enable a new one that allows competition to raise the bar – and, in turn, deliver the results that the country requires. With teacher unions possessing strong political clout, big business needs to use their lobbies to force change in the way that their tax dollars are allocated to public education at federal, state and local levels.

If businesses were able to direct the current tax dollars paid (that is earmarked for education) to endow a "national education fund" and that fund allocated its dollars evenly among each student in the country, and schools would be funded based on their enrollment and retention, then school administrators would have no choice but to build schools that attract students and deliver results.

By operating as independent entities (i.e., like businesses), each school would be compelled to build strategies to outdo competitors and establish new education delivery models that would serve to differentiate them from other players in the education market – of course, school administrators would need the ability to hire, fire, measure, reward, design and deliver education in the ways that they saw fit in order to successfully compete in attracting, retaining and producing well educated students.

A New Education Paradigm

So what might these new schools look like? Since competition will drive unique designs and curricula, they might take many forms. But all the successful schools in this new paradigm will likely share some common traits that will separate them from today's public schools.

  1. Keep it real: by demonstrating education's relevance to real life and a student's aspirations successful schools will engage students from an early age and drive their ambition to learn and to graduate;
  2. Personalize learning: in order to accelerate and deepen understanding and knowledge retention individualized teaching models will be adopted and delivered;
  3. Be easily accessible: Because of the competing demands of students' lives, the 8AM to 3PM school day does not always work. The new school model will have expanded hours of operation and be able to adopt virtual and on-demand capabilities to accommodate student's needs;
  4. Attract the "Best and Brightest" : Because there will be no collective bargaining agreements to inhibit pay for performance, the best teachers will be paid handsomely – making the teaching profession more appealing to a broader audience;
  5. Be agile and quick to change: with the freedom to do whatever it takes to attract and retain students, school administrators will be able to institute practices to improve the way education is delivered in response to the communities that they serve.

With the prodding of big business, a new paradigm can be established that encourages competition and results in creative ways to deliver education.

Driving Change

The current public education model is outdated and does not produce the results needed by tomorrow's businesses. It needs to be replaced. However, the push for a new direction for education will be met by strong resistance by the very people who have most to lose from dismantling the current cozy consensus - teachers, their unions and the politicians that they fund.

Entrenched paradigms are always defended vigorously by those with the most to lose. This is why change always comes from the outside - outsiders have little, or no, investment in keeping things the way they are. So, the change to the education system must come from the outside.

Since business has the most at stake if the current system fails to produce the educated masses that are needed for American business to flourish, then American business leaders will need to drive the change.

By insisting that their business lobbies put U.S. Public Education reform on the agenda (and redirecting their tax dollars as suggested), executive leaders can begin to improve their chances of securing the educated workforce needed to support their enterprises.

The time has come for business leaders to step up and work to redefine the education system – the future of our companies is at stake.

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is a long-time author, management consultant, vision maker and coach to some of today's best leaders. His latest book, Indispensable: Build and Lead A Company Customers Can’t Live Without was published in February 2021.