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New Thinking on Education Needed to Compete in the World

To compete in the 21st-century global economy, America needs a 21st-century education system.

Income inequality in America is at its highest point since the 1920s. For all our divisions, Americans understand that too much of the wealth our economy is producing is going to those at the very top, while millions see stagnant or declining wages. We will not solve income inequality until we provide better equality of opportunity to all Americans. That effort begins with a commitment to public education that prepares every American to succeed in the 21st century.

In the 20th century, our public schools were the envy of the world and the foundation of our economic growth. Today, we’ve fallen behind. Only four countries spend more per student than the United States, yet American high school students rank 38th in the world in math and 24th in science. The next generation of Americans will not lead the global economy unless we restore our global leadership in public education.

To get there, we need to recruit the next generation of great teachers, update school curricula and empower teachers and students with tools fitting the 21st century.

The evidence is clear: The strongest driver of a student’s success is the quality of their teachers. A landmark study in Tennessee found that when comparable 8-year-old students were given different teachers — one a high-performing teacher and one a low-performer — the student with the better teacher outperformed the other by 50% within three years. In 2011, research by Stanford economist Raj Chetty found that replacing a teacher in the bottom 5% of the teaching force with an average teacher increases a student’s lifetime income by over $250,000.

Recruiting the next generation of great teachers is our highest priority. This is not a new idea; it’s what the world’s most successful school systems are already doing. South Korea only recruits teachers in the top 5% of their graduating classes. Finland recruits teachers in the top 10%, and Singapore and Hong Kong recruit teachers from the top third. By contrast, fewer than one in four teachers in the United States comes from the top third of their graduating class. In high-poverty districts, it’s closer to one in 10.

To recruit the next generation of great teachers, we need to treat the teaching profession with the respect it deserves. Top-performing countries recognize that effective teaching demands rigorous training. In Finland, all teachers must have master’s degrees. In Singapore, teachers must complete intensive education courses and 100 hours of professional development each year. Rigorous certification requirements make the teaching profession more attractive, not less. The result is a feedback loop: As we increase the prestige of teaching, we will recruit more and more talented graduates to join, further lifting the status of teachers in our society.

We can also amplify teachers’ effectiveness. New technologies also make possible “blended learning” or “flipped classroom” approaches to teaching. Schools have already begun replacing classroom lectures with online tools that allow students to learn at their own pace. These tools allow teachers to serve as personalized coaches, identifying and responding individually to students’ needs. Over 15 million students visit the free website Quizlet every month to take tests ranging from multiplying fractions to conjugating Spanish verbs. Schools can integrate these tools to let students learn at their own speeds and give teachers instant feedback about each student’s progress. These tools also offer alternatives to high-stakes, end-of-year tests that stifle creativity.

Finally, it’s time to bring school curricula into the 21st century. The world is changing at warp speed, yet our students still study the same subjects taught to their parents a generation ago. Starting in elementary school, students should be exposed not just to STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — but to computer science and coding. Students know these principals intuitively; half the children in the world already use smartphones. Elementary school students can use educational programs like Sphero, Wonder Workshop and Lego Mindstorms to learn basic programming and design. Middle and high school students can learn basic programming languages like Python and statistics for data science and analytics.

America cannot compete in the 21st-century global economy without a 21st-century education system. To build it, we need to recruit the best teachers and make sure they have the tools to teach students the skills they need to succeed. America became the envy of the world by investing in a public education system that built a strong middle class. It’s time to rethink public education so that we provide every child an equal shot at achieving the American dream.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Sam Edwards