How to Fix “Education”

I don’t know how to fix our educational system…

But I know we can do better.

I just finished watching Waiting for Superman (a movie you should watch if you haven’t). The punchline of the movie is something we all know well: schools in America aren’t doing a good enough job at educating our kids.

If you are reading this, chances are you were lucky enough to have been born in a good neighborhood to loving and supportive parents and likely can’t relate to the challenges that way too many of our kids face. I know I was, and I’m incredibly thankful for what was a quality public school education.

However, there are way too many people who aren’t as lucky as we were, and we owe it to them and our children to give them more.

A good education is so fundamentally important to a well-functioning society it is staggering to me that we aren’t doing better. A democracy can only function if the populous is educated – and the fundamental rights of life, liberty and happiness aren’t achievable if you can’t be an active participatant in society. That a large portion of our population is not able to do so just because of where they were born is morally repugnant.

So what should we do about it?

One starting place mentioned in the movie is that we need better teachers.

I’m not going to quote data, so disagree if you must, but there are a lot of bad teachers out there. In my opinion, truly bad teachers should be fired just like in other professions. Unfortunately, due to the power of teachers unions and concepts like tenure and seniority this is sometimes hard if not impossible. This must change. I’m not suggesting an outsider should come in with a hatchet and start firing all teachers who appear to be struggling. Clearly training and experience are necessary before one can judge performance – in any profession – but after the bad performance is clear, allowing bad teachers to stay is unacceptable.

We should also recruit and train teachers as well or better than Goldman Sachs and McKinsey recruit and train their employees. And teachers should also have the opportunity to get paid as much as they could by working in private professions. Doing so is obviously a challenge given the public nature of our educational system, but plenty of public employees get paid well (judges, elected officials etc). Given the amount of money we spend on education in this country (and on prisons for those who drop out), I think smart people can solve this problem. This would help to attract and retain smart and hard working people to an important job in our society.

What is more complicated than solving the “teacher” problem, however, is solving the “student” problem.

What I mean is that part of the reason kids drop out of school and performance drops so much when kids get into middle school has little to do with the teachers – it is about the students themselves.

Clearly one should not blame a 12 year old for a failing school. So what I mean by “student” is really more about the community and family lives of the most challenged kids in our society.

One of the problems we face in solving this issue is that it involves so much stuff – much of which is very uncomfortable and controversial.

Specifically, generational poverty, lack of role models, community structure, safe neighborhoods, peer support and other issues impacting many kids are bound up in realities of still very-challenging civil rights struggles that were only just fought by our parents’ generation.

More directly: it is not a coincidence that the “achievement gap” in our educational system usually falls along socio-economic and often racial and ethnic lines.

These topics are uncomfortable to think about and sometimes not even possible to discuss, because of the understandable pain and anger that people often feel around such issues. But like it or not, we need to face these issues head on because our kids need us to.

I’m not sure how to do that or even what I think needs to change specifically, but I do think issues of inequality are helping to perpetuate broken communities which make it hard for kids to have better lives.

I think perhaps part of it boils down to the idea that we need to provide people with more opportunities – and jobs – to allow them to be contributing members of our society.

Maybe the intellectual error we are making is in assuming that just because the older kids “dropped out” or even went to prison, that they cant have a chance for a good life.

Maybe if we used some of the entrepreneurial spirit that is currently frothing the angel and VC markets to tackle this issue, we could create business models and alternative career paths that would help give jobs to people currently without hope or dignity … who are in situations where selling drugs is sometimes the most economically rational career path.

This would be difficult because they lack “skills,” but given how powerful and easy to use devices like iPads and the like are, perhaps we could figure out businesses and jobs that leveraged these aspects of the devices to allow currently-disenfranchised people to contribute to society. I have no really concrete idea how this might work, but it just seems like we have a lot of people out there who need jobs and if we could figure out a way to harness them it would kill two birds with one stone.

I’m not sure if this is right, but it does seem that helping communities is likely a mandatory component of any truly comprehensive “reform” program.

Other ideas on the “student” side of the equation are more straightforward – mentorship is one. And providing kids with knowledge of their options is another.

For awhile I’ve noodled with the idea of building a site where people would talk about their career paths in an open format so kids could see what possibilities were out there – think of it like an “open” informational interview site, or an “open” Linked-In, where kids could just see what paths are available to them. I think if you give kids the power to dream and a path to look forward to, it might help.

Who knows if I’ll ever build that or if it is even a good idea but maybe it will serve as food for thought for somebody out there…

I’m not sure how to fix education.

But I do know we can do better and that we absolutely must.

Please let me know if you have any silver bullets.

4 thoughts on “How to Fix “Education”

  1. hmf284

    Your points throughout this excellent, compelling post were echoed by Edward Glaeser’s “Economix” column this week (, which focused on Detroit:

    “(E)ducation and policing have historically been local matters in the U.S., and Detroit’s government was unable to provide its children with the schooling and safety that should have been their birthright…What it needed was education and safety, not urban renewal..(Its) long decades of suffering do seem to have cleared away some intellectual cobwebs and led some people to understand that education, not infrastructure, is the crucial ingredient for urban rebirth.”

    Never has education been so central to addressing the major challenges society faces – eg, unemployment (just 4.8% among college grads), the digital divide, int’l econ competition, income inequality, political awareness/participation.

    & yet, as Gail Collins pointed out in the opening to her review of Waiting For Superman (

    “Let’s talk for a minute about education. Already, I can see readers racing for the doors. This is one of the hardest subjects in the world to write about. Many, many people would rather discuss anything else. Sports. Crazy Tea Party candidates. Crop reports.”

    Collins contends that “there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back.”

    On the one hand, I doubt her view would be shared by anyone who watched the 2007-08 NewsHour series on Michelle Rhee (eg, “Targeting Teachers, Angering Unions”

    On the other hand, I do agree w/ Collins that the “Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has turned out to be a terrific engine for forcing politicians and unions and education experts to create better ways to get rid of inept or lazy teachers.”

    I strongly share your view on increasing teacher pay. (This doesn’t necessarily mean raising the budget for education – DC, the NewsHour series made clear, spends an inordinate amount, but rather allocating it more efficiently.)

    As David Leonhardt discussed in his column “The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers” (

    “(N)either (class size or socioeconomic factors) came close to explaining the variation in class performance. So another cause seemed to be the explanation: teachers. Some are highly effective. Some are not. And the differences can affect students for years to come.”

    What I almost never see discussed is solving the “student” problem.

    In Chicago, for example, I’m particularly troubled by the endemic violence in & around schools in low income communities. If I were advising Rahm, I’d urge him to make school safety his #1 priority. That’s my starting point, but as Diane Ravitch, observed in her critical review of the movie (, it’s the non-school factors that matter most.

    “According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers. Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens. Guggenheim skirts the issue of poverty by showing only families that are intact and dedicated to helping their children succeed.”

    I think this goes right to your point that “helping communities (via an innovative jobs program) is likely a mandatory component of any truly comprehensive “reform” program.”

    Your idea for “building a site where people would talk about their career paths..or an “open” Linked-In” is very much worth pursuing.

    The website (profiled in is one approach: “We are a video-based social community for students and young professionals to find inspiration and share ideas about innovative careers. We’ve found the most passionate, cutting edge young trailblazers we can get our camera on and asked them, simply, to share their stories.”

    I also bet LinkedIn would give serious consideration to ideas that would use the site to help make at-risk students aware of different career paths.

    Lastly, I just wanted to mention my belief in the importance of peer groups as well as mentorship.

    For me, as well as for my brother & sister, being friends in middle/high school with high achievers played a tremendous role in our academic success – to the point where parental involvement was almost non-existent & unnecessary.

    Perhaps coming up with ways to help bring promising students from low income communities together, to form friendships with one another, would also be quite valuable.

  2. Jordan

    Nice Post. I like the idea about an information site.

    Publicizing it in the right communities will be the hard part. Not too long ago, a girl came to my door selling magazines, told me she was trying to save money for college. I asked her if she had considered student loans because I have heard some very bad things about magazine crews, and she told me “remember, I’m black. I can’t get student loans”.

    I don’t know if she was kidding around, but it didn’t seem like it. Somehow, that website needs to become known in minority communities. It’s going to have to compete with that older kid who dropped out that seems so cool when you’re 14.

    Any ideas on that? One idea I have thought about is that a well-done website could reduce the complexity of pulling yourself out of a bad educational situation. Something that says “here’s where you’re at, and here’s what you can do as steps 1-10, etc”.

  3. hmf284

    Though I’m not certain charter schools are the right way to go, I also wanted to point to one in Chicago & one that will open next fall in Detroit – that both seek to create & sustain a positive school culture (- both interestingly started by young people with law degrees).

    In Chicago, Tim King’s Urban Prep Academy (h.s.) (“Chicagoan of the Year” looks like the start of a transformational approach.

    In Detroit, the plan for Amanda Rosman’s Boggs Educational Center (elementary) (Aug. 2010 interview I think is exactly the right way to go.

  4. hmf284

    As two add’l notes: – re mentorship: JumpStart looks like an interesting approach: (2/25)

    1st part discusses Jumpstart ( “a non-profit organization that pairs college students and community volunteers with pre-schoolers from low-income households. Throughout the one-year program, children are provided with one-on-one mentoring and exposure to reading.”

    Bill Gates has an op-ed today “How teacher development could revolutionize our schools.”


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