Let’s tackle the right education crisis

April 2, 2012

There’s a national security crisis in U.S. education. I’m no history sleuth, but it must have come on fast just after February 2010. That’s when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent the last Quadrennial Defense Review up to Capitol Hill, with no mention of U.S. education at all. Two years later, in March 2012, Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice issued a report from the Council on Foreign Relations that declared American education to be so failed as to put U.S. national security at risk.

National security crises can arise suddenly. But education crises? Schooling kids is much as Max Weber once described politics – “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” You can lose a school building or a teacher overnight, but you don’t fall into a national-security-like crisis by mid-morning recess. You don’t get out of it by homeroom the next day, either.

American education today does feel like it’s in crisis. But not the one Rice and Klein would have us believe. Klein and Rice say the problem is: “Johnny still can’t read, ‘rite or ‘rithmetic.” They say tests and standards are the fix. And like George Bush did down at Ground Zero after 9/11, they’ve gone to “The Pile,” megaphone in hand, shouting the alarm. This time, though, it’s not Saddam and WMD. It’s China, Finland, Singapore and our schools.

Few doubt the utility of standards and testing. But as my colleague Stephen M. Walt wrote in his dissent to the Rice-Klein report, the data is all over the place. Last week, for example, we learned that 75 percent of students graduated high school on time, the highest rate in a decade. Progress through grade level is good. Graduation rates are climbing. More are headed to college than ever before.

If we’re going to war, let’s get the problem right.

There is a crisis in American education worth going after hard. It’s one we can fix, and only a fool wouldn’t want to, whether its draped in the American flag or just sitting there quietly waiting to wreak havoc. Almost 1 million K-12 teachers – 29 percent of U.S. public school teachers – say they plan to quit within the next five years. Two years ago it was 17 percent. For those teachers with six to 20 years on the job – the heart of the batting order – 40 percent now say they plan to wave the white flag.

How do we know? Because Pew and Harris Interactive told us so last month in the 28th annual MetLife “Survey of the American Teacher.” Pew famously puts out the dullest, most obvious, least controversial survey findings imaginable. No one ever accused Pew of “rock piling” it.

But this was a stunner. Pay isn’t the issue. Safety is all right. Teacher-parent engagement is up. With collaboration between teachers and parents strong, teachers feel they have parents’ support and involvement. These are great soft indicators. So what’s the beef? Teachers feel they’re being asked to take a high-speed drill to a “strong slow boring of hard boards” problem just when the long, slow nurture of children has become all the more important to kids’ success. America’s teachers think we’ve got the problem – and the solution – wrong. Here’s what Pew Harris found:

  • Kids and families are showing up for school less ready to learnbut schools can’t close the readiness gap anymore. ”Two-thirds (64%) of teachers,” the Pew MetLife Report said, “reported that the number of students and families needing health and social support services has increased during the past 12 months.” Yet with budget declines, class sizes are growing, services are shrinking, and facilities and technology are falling down or behind.
  • The pedagogy is getting dumbed down to teach to the test – and teachers are losing confidence that they can deliver educated children. “Many teachers,” Pew MetLlife reports, “are concerned that their classrooms have become so mixed in terms of student learning abilities that they cannot teach them effectively.”
  • With schools in crisis, collaboration matters more than ever but new performance measures reward individual performance. Just when all hands on deck matters most, Pew MetLife reports, teachers witness a return to the industrial-age models that “emphasize assessing the effectiveness of teachers individually.”
  • And Donald (“You’re fired!”) Trump is heading up HR. In 2006, 8 percent of teachers felt their jobs were insecure. Five years later, Pew MetLife reports, that number quadrupled to 34 percent.

With U.S. schools increasingly under the equivalent of quarterly earnings pressure, teachers have become a classic case of what Harvard professor Malcolm Sparrow calls “failing the Crush Test.” We’ve handed teachers a problem so wrong-sized and wrong-shaped that it feels overwhelming.

What’s the answer? Let’ start with Wegmans, the grocery chain. As David Rohde recently documented, the privately held company puts its 42,000 employees’ satisfaction first and translates that into great results – as it’s been doing since 1916. This year Fortune rated Wegmans the fourth-best place to work in the U.S. Wal-Mart didn’t crack the top 100. How many of our 42,000-employee school districts would?

Great public leaders energize their rank-and-file, too. They can’t promise big bucks, and most public employees couldn’t care less. Yes, they like job security and benefits. But the secret sauce that supercharges teachers, cops, social workers and others? It’s the chance to do what they showed up to do the very first day on the job. Help make kids smart and successful. Keep neighborhoods safe. Bring families back from crisis.

“Unleashing change,” Harvard professor Steve Kelman calls it. Let teachers teach. Give them a vision and a plan that works. Help them put all that passion on targets they believe in, and they will deliver results that astound.

Anthony Alvarado did exactly this. He turned two troubled New York City school districts around and amassed a reputation with teachers and administrators, students and parents as one of the great superintendents of New York, ever. Every performance indicator rose. All clamored to get into his schools. “We love Tony,” said the UFT.

That took 11 years – a long, slow boring. When Alvarado tried to replicate high performance on a fast track in San Diego, he was gone in four. In the race to the top he moved too far too fast, lost teachers’ support and outran his political headlights. You can move fast – but only as fast as you can engage, energize and get teachers moving with you.

PHOTO: Students boarding a school bus in Marietta, South Dakota, February 14, 2012.  REUTERS/Jim Young


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I think we should remove the federal gov. from education in all ways. No loans either. Let the states and fin serv industry handle it.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

“Kids and families are showing up for school less ready to learn” is the problem. This is code words for social programs that should be out-of-bounds for school systems. We have social programs for feeding the poor children breakfast. It should NOT come from my school taxes. We have social programs for single parent families, multi parent families, kids with special needs, kids with purple spots…
Very little of it has anything to do with actually teaching the students.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

It is hard to believe that teachers will, in significant numbers, be quitting their jobs any time soon. Where exactly are they planning to go? Most would need to accept a giant cut in pay and benefits to work in the private sector. That just isn’t going to happen.

As for testing, it is the unpleasant result of the continuing downward trend in the quality of American
K-12 education. The US was once the world leader in science and engineering. In an ever increasingly technical world, we now import scientists and engineers.
This is shameful.

The biggest problem with public education is that our kids come out of school totally unprepared to confront the working world. For those not college bound, we should create curricula that prepares them for an occupation similar to what is done in much of Europe most notably Germany. College bound students should be encouraged to pursue a degree that will position them to make a good living after graduation.

We desperately need to rekindle the American Dream in the hearts and minds of our kids. Making money in a successful career is not greedy or somehow untoward. In fact, it should be the goal. Charitable giving and public service are good things, but if you want to make a positive impact on society, get out there and be successful. Make as much money as you can. Not because of greed, but because the money is a measure of your contribution to society. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given away billions to great effect, but it pales in comparison to the world wide positive impact of Microsoft’s products. Somehow our culture has lost respect for those who are successful. In fact, we seem to relish demonizing the “rich”. This is unfortunate. It is a serious problem we need to remedy if we are to halt our decline in an increasingly competitive and interconnected world.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

“With U.S. schools increasingly under the equivalent of quarterly earnings pressure…” — privatizing education will only make this worse. Kids are no widgets; they need holistic learning experiences and teachers know how to reach them. Let teachers do their jobs.

“But the secret sauce that supercharges teachers, cops, social workers and others? It’s the chance to do what they showed up to do the very first day on the job. Help make kids smart and successful.” — We know this in business (see any number of HBR blog posts about this)… passion drives the learning, innovation, etc. Teachers passionate about teaching and helping kids learn will energize the students, serious multiplier effect. So, if we want to model business; let’s not model the profit-driven craze but the common sense of reaching people through engagement and actual passion so we can cultivate lifelong learning.

Learning takes time. Alvardo needed 11 years to make a difference. Out in 4 in SD? Embarrassingly short sighted. You cannot spring a marathon!

Posted by GlobalJackie | Report as abusive

What does Pew have to do with the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher?

This column is either mis-representing facts or badly confused. The blog should be taken down and corrected.

Posted by hech2 | Report as abusive

This analysis, like so many I have seen before, is missing the elephant in the room. All of the problems you have identified here exist, but you fall short of explaining that the existence of these problems is by design. You have a former Bush Administration official proclaiming education to be a national security crisis, yet it was the Bush Administration that gave us the abominable NCLB law. The purpose of that law was not to fix the public schools. Its purpose was to destroy them, and it’s doing a pretty good job of it.

Posted by Fishrl | Report as abusive

I have been to school board meetings and hear the school saying they need new computers, yet mu son would tell me they did not know how to use the ones they had and would not let students near them (8 years ago I hope it changed). But being a computer person myself, I really do not understand why they are even being used in schools at all today.
Every kid can use them or get access at a library. What they need to know is how to solve problems with pencil and paper. Also, they get too much computer time at home, they need to learn how to socially interact. School bully problems were solved in the neighborhoods, a school bully would have to deal with the victims older brother or cousin in the empty lot or the woods behind the neighborhood.

And forget the computers at school, a waste of money and time. Teach them to program computers, this can be done with the most basic machine and a standard compiler or even java script web window.

Drop standardized tests. It measures nothing except test taking. Tests are too easily gamed by rich kids or those with clever parents.

Posted by carlo151 | Report as abusive

[…] Read more > Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged Belfer Center, education, United States, Zachary Tumin. Bookmark the permalink. ← Abbas Maleki on Iran […]

Posted by Zachary Tumin on American education | Belfer In The News | Report as abusive

The problem with education in America today is the same problem we have in so many other areas where American used to excel. The American public simply does not care. Not interested. There is no political will to do much of anything. Space exploration with its current demise, a very tiny tiny arena of concern, is symptomatic of that larger lack of interest in much of anything.

And, evaluating teachers individually and rewarding them individually most certainly will lead to lack of teamwork. I was telecommunications for 30 years I can guarantee you that is what happens when teamwork is espoused but evaluations are individualized. It is basic industrial psychology – – people to what they get rewarded for and nothing else.

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

Joel Klein has unspeakable gall in attempting to be a National Authority education after he presided over the systematic dismantling of education in New York City. Klein never taught a day in his life, yet he became head of the nations largest school system. As “Chancellor”, his task was solely to promote his and Mayor Bloomberg’s political aspirations. During his tenure, instruction was subordinated to generating high (and often fraudulent) reading and math test scores, which they could then trumpet to their own glory. This damage will take decades to remedy, as there are few young people sufficiently educated to become the next generation of teachers. Klein left NYC under a cloud of disgrace. Now he’s poised to exercise his “expertise” on the whole nation. I hope history will hold Bloomberg and Klein personally responsible for the damage done to an entire generation of young people, for their own aggrandizement. And God help the youth of America.

Posted by aristotele | Report as abusive

Teachers aren’t the real problem.

It’s the underlying system.

See this article in Bloomberg:

“New Reading Teachers Should Pass a Reading Test” By Sandra Stotsky Apr 1, 2012.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-01  /new-reading-teachers-should-pass-a-rea ding-test.html

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

In Finland we have free education system, all the children go the same school and state pays it from taxfunds. We don’t have any tests which ranks schools. All are equal and teachers are very well aducated, all have masters degree in education or in subject which they teach. This has been said to been the key why we have succeeded so well. We have curriculum and it is nation wide, so if tou move from town to town you can have exactly the same education.

I think the promlem is in your society and you have public and private schools. American history is of course very important but every kid here in Finland knows the basic stuff about the geoghaphy, biology, history etc. by the age 12. So if you ask Finnish student capitols, they know. If you ask basics about the history they know but why is it so common that so many in USA think that we have polar bear here in Finland an d somebody once thouhgt that Finland is in AFRICA!!!!

Posted by fromfinland | Report as abusive

[…] blogged on this matter at Reuters.com. It seemed surprising that two years after Secretary of Defense Gates submitted the […]

Posted by Is There a National Security Crisis in U.S. Education? | Technology+Policy | Report as abusive


You are from Europe and you don’t see the big picture.
The US is simply too diverse both culturally and genetically speaking. People have very different innate characteristics and abilities. Cognitive and academic abilities are just a few examples.

Trying to create a one size fit all solution in the US for anything is just too tough if not unrealistic.

In the US you can easily find a few genius as well as a few idiots. In Finland, my guess is that you likely end up somewhere around the mean as in most homogenous countries.

In the end, you need balance because if you don’t have diversity, it’s hard to have a healthy level of inspiration and progress. But if you make it too diverse, you end up with unsustainable if not chaotic social and economic cohesion.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

Ok, I think I need to retract my previous comment.

However, I just want to point out that removing the private sector and let the government do it is not going to solve the problem.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

The education problem we have is that we need to teach students how to think. Progress only occurs when people can see problems in a new light and then go about and apply what we have learned. If we teach to the test we only learn how to answer questions only using memory. Education is much more than rote knowledge. (See Bloom’s Taxonomy to see what makes for well educated students.)
Teachers want to teach! Let us teach! We should not prepare students for tests so that “educators” can say “School A is superior to school B” or that “My political agenda works! Look at the success we have because our students did well on test X.”
We need true educators, who understanding how students learn and how to teach as leaders in the educational community. We need to remove all “educators” who think that because I successfully completed my education I know what students need.

Posted by zki | Report as abusive

While all the comments bear some degree of truth and pint at the many symptoms of educational failure the core of educational dysfunction in American public schools is in the antiquated and discontinuous policies and practices that hold the performance of public schools to the original purposes of K12 education. The schools still are designed to create workers and to sort them into the caste system of 19th century America. A system based on industrial capitalism. There is no effort to address the ability of students to improve the quality of cognitive development, in short “how to learn”. The schools are still driven by a desire to indoctrinate students about what to learn not how to learn. There is scant evidence that critical thought or human development are the purpose of a K12 education. The best that can be said of the current system is that it trains students to perform a job or task at various levels of difficulty or complexity. That would include the entire K12 syllabus including science and math. The effort is not to promote in students an inherent capacity as mathematicians or scientists but to acquire the information that constitutes math and science without the personal and individual capacity to be either a mathematician or a scientist. The schools treat students at every level and age as raw material to be shaped to the needs of an industrial society, not to develop as complete and autonomous individuals. In short we need a school system that is predicated on a desire and competency for human development. The worst that can be said is that the schools are convincing us that the purpose of life is to work. The real purpose of life is to live, not work. We are designed to learn and learning is the inherent purpose of life for human beings.

The system (K12 to the doctorate) has been corrupted by industrial values that evaluate human effort by economic standards. As a society we hold in contempt any effort to questions the assumptions that support the premises of the core curriculum. There is no inquiry, and further there is no pedagogy that supports the implementation of inquiry as a cognitive ability and practice. The deficit in the schools of education to engage the community in a pursuit of understanding rather than the embrace of dysfunctional epistemology. There is no knowledge without a knower and the practice of replacing knowledge with information is an easy but empty practice that seems epidemic in our 21st century corporate state. The schools have abandoned the idea that the center of a civil society is the personal responsibility of the individual for the whole, the polity, the community, the common wealth. The academy urges us to abandon that responsibility to our selves and our children and leave it to the oligarchs who now walk the ramparts of corporate America. The problem with the public schools is in the vacuousness of our own efforts and short-sightedness of our vision. We are being led by economists who would bribe our children to do better(?) on tests like some common commercial enterprise – that which they were naturally designed to do. The shame is that we have turned education over to the philistines in corporate America, the lawyers and the masters of political intrigue. Joel Klein couldn’t bring MicroSoft to heel and as a reward he got the children of New York City to chew on.

The purpose of education ought to be driven by human development not industrialist values and incentives.

Posted by Ombasha | Report as abusive