Mortimer B. Zuckerman

Why is it that the education of our children has become such a national challenge? How could America rank in the bottom third among developed nations in terms of student performance, yet we spend more per capita than virtually any other nation?

How is it that U.S. fourth graders rank in the 80th percentile globally in science (that is, the top 20 percent), yet by the time they reach the 12th grade, they have dropped to the 5th percentile, while only half of our high school students are at an even basic level in math and science?

Why are there so few qualified teachers to meet the demands in math, science, computer science, and special education? How is it that most teachers in America are given lifetime tenure, with about 99 percent of them rated satisfactory by their school systems year after year, and yet the gap between our student achievements and those of better-performing nations grows all the time? What has happened to an America that once led the world in public education?

The critical element is the quality of teaching.

The evidence has been compelling for years. Take two average 8-year-olds. Give one a good teacher and the other a poor teacher. Over three years, according to research cited by McKinsey & Co., the children's performance diverges by more than 50 percentile points. It is better to have a good teacher in a bad school than a bad teacher in a good school. By contrast, according to other research, reducing class size from 23 to 15 students improves performance by an average of 8 percentile points at best. Children with poor teachers progress three times slower. They suffer a virtually irreversible education loss, even if they are in good school systems.

America has to rethink how to attract, employ, retain, and reward outstanding teaching talent. A century ago, schools could be casual about hiring talent -- for a simple reason. Educated women had virtually nowhere else to turn for work. In those days, most educated women did not work and those who did disproportionately entered teaching. In the 1950s, when our nation employed a million public school teachers, more than half of college-educated women became teachers. Today, when we have about 3.5 million teaching jobs, roughly only 15 percent of educated women become teachers.

It is useful to see how some of the world's best-performing education systems have come out on top. It is not a matter of money. Officials have simply learned that results come from getting the right people to become teachers and developing them into effective instructors.

How do they do that?

They make entry into teacher training highly selective. Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, select from the top 30 percent of the graduating classes from their school systems, Finland from the top 10 percent, and South Korea from the top 5 percent. They recognize that selecting the wrong candidate for training can result in perhaps 40 years of poor teaching.

From this crop of bright graduates, they look for high literacy and numeracy levels, strong communication and interpersonal skills, the motivation to teach, and a willingness to learn. So they screen and test applicants and are confident enough to provide those selected a guaranteed teaching position after training.

Our own research supports this, for we have found that great teachers tend to set high standards for their students, but also constantly re-evaluate what they themselves are doing; they prepare lessons and courses intensively, whether for the next day or the year ahead. Many score high in life satisfaction, and their zest and enthusiasm permeate their teaching.

The Asian front-runners in education offer good starting salaries -- but in line with starting salaries for graduates in other professions. They work constantly to drive up the standards and the prestige of the profession, which attracts even better candidates.

Even with this screening, it is inevitable that some of those selected will disappoint in their skill and enthusiasm. They are not allowed to stay and teach poorly; they are removed. Tenure is not so lightly awarded as it is in most of America. Here the bad teacher survives, affecting the lives of thousands of children.

The notion that teachers can be hired on a state-level certification and enter a system that rewards seniority over performance, which is typical in America's school systems, is simply obsolete.

So too is the old model in which one teacher, chalk in hand, stands in front of a room of 20 to 30 kids. Back in the 1900s, less than 10 percent of American homes had electricity. Today we live in a world of smartphones, video-conferencing, the Internet, and DVDs, which open up opportunities for educators to leverage the modern tools of technology. American education must simply recognize that technology is a multiplier of great teaching. We can have the best teachers appearing in hundreds of thousands of different classrooms across America and thus transcend the limits of geography.

In addition to bringing the best teaching to the most students, the technology can enable children to learn at their own pace through online and blended learning regardless of language, ZIP code, income levels, or special needs. Learning would no longer have to start, as it does today, when the student enters the classroom and end when the school bell rings. Digital learning enables students to spend as little or as much time as they need to master material, so that high-achieving students are not bored while struggling students can get the additional time and tutoring they need. Instructional teaching no longer has to be aimed and paced for the middle of the class.

Classrooms could be equipped with large, flat-screen monitors and supplied with digital content that uses animation, video dramatization, and other presentation options to convey material in unique ways now unavailable in conventional classrooms, all presented by the best teachers in the country. Classroom teachers in effect would play the role of managing the teaching material and answering questions as well as helping students to better understand the material conveyed electronically. They could pause presentations at key points to ask questions or prompt critical thinking.

Teachers unions have become a critical barrier to much of the above.

Like all unions, they fight for provisions that are favorable for the mass of their members. They protect jobs, limit demands placed on their members, and limit teacher accountability for student performance. They obstruct the removal of weak teachers -- principals can usually tell within a few years, certainly no more than five -- and they limit principals' ability in the assignment of teachers to schools or within schools. They hamper the ability of principals to make sure their teachers are doing the best job of teaching. Sometimes these rules protect teachers' jobs at the expense of the rights of children to an outstanding education. We cannot allow our educational system to handicap children through low-performing teachers.

There is certainly a role for the national teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, whose total membership now approximates 4.5 million. But they should emphasize the positive. It is critical for our children and for our national economy that the local and state schools are not inhibited in striving for good teaching. We simply cannot afford not to have students who learn more, earn more, spend more, invest more, save more, and pay more in taxes. That, in the modern era, comes increasingly from education. For example, a college degree virtually doubles the earnings potential of a high school diploma. Most critically, the future of our economy will be increasingly dependent on people with a superior education.

It is essential that our public authorities don't go about business as usual.

They should devote the resources to develop enough outstanding teachers; they should support the installation of the technology that can disseminate the quality education our children will need to compete and flourish in this new world. The state, the private sector, and our great foundations should foster the development of more software for online education, for DVDs, and for electronic books, so that great teaching can reach millions of youngsters.

Distance and digital learning is the best and most efficient way to rebuild the standards of mass education. In fact, the new methods could reduce the longer-term need for mass teaching manpower (and womanpower) so that we could pay more for a smaller body of top teachers. We are struggling to compete and prosper in an increasingly competitive world and education is the key. America's economic pre-eminence, our ability to out-compete other countries, will be shaped not just in boardrooms, not just on our factory floors, but more and more in our classrooms and our schools.

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Best and Brightest Teachers Key to Solving U.S. Education Crisis