10-point plan to transform the education system

Recently, at the Archuleta County Education Center’s annual luncheon, attendees heard a dynamic keynote speech from Dr. Teresa Chasteen, CEO and president of Worldwide Interactive Network, Inc. Initially, she put into context why education is so important. These are not new ideas or things we do not know but the context is relevant because the world has changed so much in such a relatively short period of time.

A generation ago, families could live a middle class life with limited educations using their hands and brawn. Hard work alone could allow people to overcome their family circumstances; this is no longer true in our knowledge based economy. Medical breakthroughs are allowing people to live longer, with a better quality of life. Economies are growing, which means the standard of living is rising for many around the world. The advances in technology have revolutionized the way we live and the acceleration of technological change is moving the world at warp speed. Competition has gone global. In the new knowledge-based economy, education is the key to success.

Yet, education, the one area that should be as dynamic as our economy and our lives, has not adapted to meet the demands of the new world. Broadly stated, our expectations are way too low for our students, education is not customized to meet the needs of students, by and large the way we educate our students isn’t an exciting and stimulating experience, great teachers aren’t rewarded for their greatness, the successful educational models that exist throughout the country aren’t automatically replicated, and on and on it goes.

Without provocative change, we risk losing our position as a global economic powerhouse. So what should we do? Chasteen believes it will require a transformation of our education system and she has a 10-point plan for the areas that need to be addressed which she shared during her keynote speech.

1. Universal voluntary pre-kindergarten and full-time kindergarten.

This should be the norm rather than the exception. The achievement gap that leaves so many kids behind starts in kindergarten. For example, in the first four years of life, kids in poverty hear on average 13 million words compared to 45 million words for a child of a professional family. Thus, when starting kindergarten, a child in poverty starts with less than half of the vocabulary than a child of affluence. This cannot be excused away as a tragic achievement gap and research proves that a literacy based, high quality four-year-old program followed by a full-time kindergarten program will bridge the gap.

2. Command focus on reading starting in elementary school and a policy to end social promotion starting in third grade.

Students must be able to read to learn. This is especially true beginning in middle school. Therefore, the elementary school focus from kindergarten through third grade needs to focus on learning to read. Learning to read well. Social promotion, the practice of promoting a general student to the next grade despite their low achievement in order to keep them with social peers, is a bad policy. It only short changes the student whose struggles are now just beginning if he has a low reading ability. This is a tough decision and one based in a social versus learning climate.

3. Middle school reform.

At a time when children are changing physically, developing more specific interests and dealing with increased peer pressure, this is also when kids start to lose interest in school. This level of education needs more rigors in general. There needs to be more options for advanced students, more remediation for struggling readers, and more engagement and stimulus for the general student. This is a time when rapport between students and teachers is essential and teachers need to be given the training, tools and mandate to building rapport.

5. A much greater emphasis in math and science.

Once a child has established themselves as a reader, math and science must become a focus. The international standards are increasing and the majority of the U.S. population is being left behind. The U.S. cannot assume that we can import our talent anymore and we must learn to educate our own in the competing global economy. Involving the private sector in this initiative is a must.

4. High school reform.

Relevancy, relevancy, relevancy. Additionally, more rigors especially in math and science must be added. Many high school programs add electives with the intent of keeping kids engaged. Most of these electives have no relevancy. Many of these electives are taught by a teacher with an interest in the area but no real training. Most high schools promote the two track education system: one where students are classified for either college or some type of technical training. This does not meet the needs of most students and will not meet the needs of the new and more dynamic economy.

6. World class standards that drive teaching and curriculum.

Our national standards need a thorough review and higher expectations need to be imbedded into national and then state standards.

7. More school choice.

Change, especially in the public school system, must be accelerated. Parents and students need more choices. Public schools should be looking at best practices elsewhere, not be threatened by charter and private schools, be willing to let go of the sacred cows and look at innovative opportunities to create and inspire change within their system and the administrative and teaching staff.

8. Pay for performance for teachers and principals.

It is a shame that those teaching our children do not get paid more, especially in a country where teaching salaries are the lowest as compared to most industries. The difference, however, is that those other industries do not have tenure or unions, can hire and fire at will, have annual and rigorous performance reviews, and pay increases and salaries are equated with documented performance. Public schools are burdened with teachers that are burnt out, underperforming and unwilling to make changes. Administrators and principals must be given the skills and then required to display the leadership to have uncomfortable conversations with teachers to help them progress or help them with a dignified exit strategy.

9. University accountability.

Only half of 18 and 19 year olds are enrolled in college and only 60% of those graduate in six years. Fewer of them are gaining degrees that will allow them to be competitive in the increasingly global labor marketplace. However, the median annual income for those earning a bachelors degree is now more than two times higher than high school graduates and the gap grows each and every year.

Additionally, there is growing belief that innovation and technology will put at risk millions and millions more jobs that were once thought to be required to be done by Americans for the American market. For example, computer programmers, medical transcriptionists, bookkeepers, accounting clerks, and call centers are being done in far off places with an educated and motivated workforce that is not American.

10. A renaissance in career-oriented education for lifetime learning.

In order for a true rebirth to occur, we need to stop treating vocational-technical training as “the next best thing to college.” The days of a two track education system, one where students are either in college or some other form of training, will not meet the needs of the expanding and dynamic global economy. We need to replace the system with a broad span of opportunity that reflects the marketplace and maximizes the individual strengths and interests of each student. We need a system that targets students in their educational environment to ensure they have the skills employers are looking for.

We need to challenge ourselves and the status quo if we want to continue to lead in a world awash with opportunity. From a 4-year-old to a struggling reader in elementary school to a bored high school student to a displaced worker, we should have a rigorous education menu for all who need it. If we don’t change, we will be in decline. If we transform our education system, we will continue to lead the world in terms of innovation, prosperity and progress.