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How To Fix Public Education

By Oliver DeMille

Time magazine recently published a cover article on reforming American education, and its leading argument was the need for more great teachers.  The details, however, contained more of the same old edu-bureaucratic ideas which have been promoted for the past thirty years.

Opening the teacher rolls to more people with real-life business and professional experience is a good idea, as is the age-old argument that teacher pay must significantly increase.  But unfortunately most proposals are full of more red tape that further stifles good teaching.

As long as we have massive government bureaucracy and overwhelming levels of regulation on teachers, educational problems will increase.

Television networks also aired a number of recent news programs on educational reform, corresponding with the release of the new education documentary Waiting for Superman.  Not only are statistics and debates about education currently flying around in the professional and public forums, but most “regular” Americans are deeply worried about our schools.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 58% of Americans believe that major changes or a complete overhaul of education is needed. Another 36% believe that some change is needed. Only 2% of Americans give our education system an A grade, while 77% give it a C, D or F.

Many Americans are concerned with what they see on the Fall 2010 reality show School Pride. The program found schools in seriously dilapidated condition: mice running around in plain view, restrooms and drinking fountains that don’t work, ceiling tiles falling on kids in school, and so on.

News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch says that the public schools are “Failure Factories” which imperil the Middle Class.

“The failure rates of our public schools represent a tragic waste of human capital that is making America less competitive… Upward mobility in America is in jeopardy unless we fix our public schools… In plain English, we trap the children who need an education the most in failure factories…”

While many liberals discount the words of Murdoch (whose company owns The Wall Street Journal and Fox News), it was liberals—the same group that produced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth—who brought us Waiting for Superman.
Both the left and the right have long voiced the need for improved education; but little real reform has resulted.

In Waiting for Superman, five kids seek to be accepted into prestigious charter schools, but across America many youth are forced to remain in failing local public schools.  The documentary portrays bad teachers (mostly tenured) and the unions that support them as a (the?) major problem.

In the movie, the teacher’s union in Washington, D.C. rejected schools chief Michelle Rhee’s offer to double teacher pay in exchange for getting rid of tenure and adopting merit pay.  But in truth, it will be great teaching that solves the education crisis—if we solve it at all.

As The Economist put it:

“…the movie also has a message of hope: there are good schools and teachers in America, whose methods could make its education system as good as any in the world if only they were allowed to.”

The Challenge

This comes at the most challenging time in decades, as overextended state houses attempt to balance deficit-ridden budgets and pay for basic services. Education appears to be failing at the very time that states can least afford to fix the schools.  Even with all the hype, most current proposals will increase the very regulation and bureaucratic requirements that hamstring great teachers and keep them from delivering truly quality education in schools across America.

I’ve visited many schools over the years, and inevitably teachers say their biggest challenge is that the system won’t let them really teach.  Dilapidated schools certainly need some work, but the educational process needs just as much. Given the choice between a great teacher and a plush classroom, which do you think would make the most difference?

Many conservatives and even liberals who have been otherwise critical of the Obama Administration’s agenda have praised the White House’s educational plans.

The major proposed initiatives include:

  • An extended school year
  • A national weeding out of the teachers which perform worst
  • Increased emphasis on math and science
  • 10,000 more science, math, engineering and technology teachers
  • Nationalized teacher and student standards

Current plans are not emulating the Swedish model, where teachers are compensated and held in similar esteem to doctors, lawyers and engineers, nor do they idealize the model of elite private schools in America with individual tutors and deep study of the greatest classics of humanity (arguably the best schools in the world).

Instead, the initiatives appear to be modeled after the 1980s Japanese schools and the current educational system in France.

Many conservatives and liberals now seem to agree that the ideal system would include:

  • High standards set by the central government
  • Strict grading based on these nationalized standards in each subject
  • Classes that teach to the national tests
  • Teacher career advancement based on student test performance
  • A meritocratic jobs system based on student grades
  • Study hours per day and subject dictated by national education managers

This is more than a conveyor belt; it is a “mechanized-style” assembly line which assumes that every student in the nation has the same learning styles, interests, goals, dreams and abilities—or should.

Unfortunately, the results in both Japan and France include(d) high levels of mental illness among the youth, a high drop-out rate which leaves students with few career options and creates a perpetual unemployed class that is a drag on society, a society of students and workers who spend their lives “feeling like numbers” instead of individuals, and a nation of citizens and officials with a bureaucratic mentality.

And the “dirty little secret” is that the test scores of nations with such systems are still middle of the road—not top of the class.

Ultimately, the result of such education is reduced national innovation, initiative, ingenuity and entrepreneurialism—the very skills and habits which made America the world’s economic leader and which are needed to get the U.S. economy back on track.

The research, articles and books promoting major educational reforms to drastically boost America’s entrepreneurial mindset are myriad.  So why are we following the educational path of other nations (indeed nations whose students test in the middle and whose economies follow suit), instead of the effective private schools in our own nation?

Conspiracy theories aside, why don’t we simply emulate the best schools in our nation (and the world)?

The first response is likely that such education is too costly; but the facts simply don’t bear this out. For-profit educational institutions have proven that quality education can be delivered at less than the national cost-per-pupil, yet both the Bush and Obama Administrations have “radiated hostility” toward such programs (as do both Republican and Democratic leaders in many states).

Fortunately, the Obama team has been supportive of innovative charter schools. And Obama-led incentives to public schools which perform well are a positive free-market-style initiative.  In a few places huge donations are given to school districts, such as $290 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to three districts in Florida, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, and $100 million from Mark Zuckerberg to New Jersey schools, among others.

Unfortunately, most programs still fail to truly teach innovation, initiative, independent-thinking and entrepreneurial leadership.

Isn’t it time to really reform American education? If our schools continue on their current path, the future of our competitiveness in the world economy is bleak.  What can we do in order to simultaneously test well, compete for leadership in the world economy, and deliver schools which give every child the high likelihood of an excellent education in all subjects along with leading skills in innovation, initiative, ingenuity and entrepreneurial thinking?

Six Proposals

To cut through the reams of commentary on education, I will be as brief as possible in outlining six reforms which can truly “fix” American education. Further discussion on each of these is certainly worthy of our time, but my purpose here is to be as clear and concise as possible.

True educational reform will take a great deal of wise thinking and leadership, but it is not nearly as complex as the bureaucracy so often claims.

Here are six educational proposals that would significantly improve education:

1-Let Teachers Teach
Common-sense regulations for safety should remain, but we need to get rid of the massive levels of regulation forcing school boards to follow numerous policies which actually hurt education, requiring principals to shut down their best teachers and make them teach to the mediocre tests and standards, and preventing teachers from throwing away the bureaucratic manuals and lesson plans and really connecting with each student.

This is more complex than a simple change in attitude can achieve, but it is the first step. We need to give classroom teaching back to the teachers, or we will never see a significant improvement in American education.

With proposal #1 above in process, great teachers can do what they do best—find out what each student needs and help him/her get it! Until this happens, we will never really know who the good versus bad teachers are. As long as teachers are following the manuals, they aren’t truly teaching. Once they are allowed to individualize, we will naturally see which teachers are great teachers.

And, many of the great teachers who have left the education profession because of the mediocrity of the conveyor-belt system will come back to a teaching career. Together these changes will revolutionize education. Individualized, personalized, focused education is education; anything else is something else.

Until we individualize, like the best private and elite schools do, we will never see the same quality of education in our schools. Indeed, most of the so-called “good students” in our schools excel precisely because they receive such personalization in their learning.

3-Restore Principals
The title “Principal” originally meant “Principal Teacher.” When we took principals out of the classroom, we de-emphasized learning and put the focus on management.  Great teaching occurs much more frequently and effectively when it is led by a great teacher in every school—who is also the boss. Most principals today are managers rather than educators because of the massive amounts of regulation they have to supervise.

Dump most of the regulation—everything that doesn’t protect safety or social equality—and put a master teacher in each school as the Principal. Then evaluate principals on the quality of education for the whole school. The rest will take care of itself, as great Principal Teachers drastically increase the quality of teaching and learning in every school.

Indeed, great principals naturally individualize the work of each teacher, encouraging them to bring their greatest strengths to the classroom. When this occurs, great teaching spreads and quality learning flourishes. This change will not be easy, but it will greatly impact the excellence of our schools.

4-Institute Flexible Exams
Allow flexible exam options where students can be tested according to their strengths—oral exams, projects, presentations, essays, multiple choice tests and other options agreed upon by the teachers, students and principal.
Instead of making students fit the system, great education occurs where committed educators adapt the system to the needs and abilities of the students.

This allows teachers to simultaneously teach to the test (raising the level of measurable progress) and do it in a way that personalizes the material to each student’s abilities and strengths. This encourages teachers to really, truly teach, helping each student identify, seek and obtain excellent and quality goals.

This is not, by the way, a weakening of standards; students should start where they can most effectively learn and succeed, and then over time teachers should help students master multiple and all modes of testing, making school exams more interconnected with and helpful in career and real-life skills.

5-Reform Teacher Training
Reduce some of the current teacher-training coursework and replace it with an intensive study of the greatest classics in human history using The Great Books and The Great Ideas. Leave the basic facets (such as classroom management, lesson planning, educational ethics, teaching specific topics, etc.) of teacher training in place, but in a more compact form.

Most of these are only truly learned on the job anyway, which is why Education majors and programs are often seen as among the easiest on most campuses.

In the new model, teacher training would last roughly the same amount of time as it currently does, and it would contain three main parts: teacher training, The Great Books, and student teaching. This kind of broad immersion in the Great Conversation will infuse life and excellence into the entire educational system.

The better educated our teachers—of all grade levels and educational topics—the more we are likely to see quality increase in our classrooms.

6-Empower Principals and Teachers
Give each teacher an administrative assistant/teacher’s aide, a laptop, a cell phone, and a set of—or subscription to—The Great Books.

Like Sweden, where teaching is an honored profession at the level of law and medicine, the United States needs to empower great teachers. And Sweden spends less per pupil than the U.S. does, with higher returns.

The reduction of expenses created by cutting the massive educational regulatory and bureaucratic apparatus (at federal, state and district levels and in each individual school) will free up a great deal of funding to pay for these changes.

Increasing teacher salaries would help, but almost no teacher goes into education for the money. Nearly all teachers pursue their profession because they want to help young people and to make a real difference. Items 1-6 will make teaching a dream for those who really love teaching and helping youth.


These six changes would drastically increase the quality of America’s public schools, by making them more like the private and elite schools which systematically produce high-quality educational results year after year.

All 6 would have significant impact on the quality of learning in our schools, and even just items 1-4 would greatly improve our schools.

Proposals 1-4 should be simultaneously implemented first (perhaps in a few test cases run concurrently in urban, suburban and rural schools), followed by proposals 5-6 as funding allows.

Such reforms would cause a veritable renaissance in American education. Until such changes, or reforms much like them, are instituted, we will most likely continue to see American education produce mediocre results.


Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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  1. Mike Barrett says

    Over emphasis on Charter Schools but otherwise one of the more intelligent models for education reform that I have seen. I particularly like the references to the need for higher teacher status as in Sweden and:

    “The reduction of expenses created by cutting the massive educational regulatory and bureaucratic apparatus (at federal, state and district levels and in each individual school) will free up a great deal of funding to pay for these changes.”

    However as I have said elsewhere: “It really is a fact that virtually all of the problems with public education are due to the long-term effects of poverty and inequality. Much of the rest can be ascribed to the summer slide. See “What determines how well kids do in school,” in the December 2009 Physicstoday (page 28) and “The Case Against Summer Vacation,” in the 22 July 2010 Time.

    Education reform may help at the margins but policies that revitalize the middle class and eliminate poverty are sorely needed.” Simply “fixing” education is not enough to end or even reduce poverty.

    Retired High School Physics, Chemistry, and Earth Science Teacher
    Former Petroleum Geologist

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