Politics & Policy

Toward a Better Education System

A set of bold, proven reforms is the key to raising student achievement.

The United States has become a global leader in education spending, while also becoming a global laggard in student achievement. Our students have fallen behind their international peers in math and science. The result is that only one quarter of the students who do earn a high-school diploma are prepared for college. Despite high unemployment, there are 3 million skilled jobs going unfilled because companies cannot find qualified applicants.   

Studies done by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute show the prospect for economic mobility is becoming increasingly remote. The income gap is widening, and the middle class is being squeezed. Thankfully, state leaders are backing reforms to transform education in ways that will ultimately extend opportunity and prosperity to more Americans. But more must be done.

Accountability and transparency have shown us which policies work and which ones don’t. There is no single wonder drug that will transform education, but a set of bold, proven reforms holds the key to dramatically raising student achievement.

First, high standards are the most basic element of reform. To compete with the rest of the world, we must produce competitive high-school graduates. That means we have to make sure that the skills they are learning are aligned with what employers and colleges expect high-school graduates to know.

Recognizing this need, state leaders have worked together to develop a set of rigorous academic standards in math and English language arts. These standards, known as the Common Core State Standards, set an ambitious and voluntary goal line. The states develop their own content or game plans to get into the end zone. State and local leaders call the plays.

This is not the establishment of a national curriculum. Contrary to what Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck tell you, higher standards won’t harm parental choice, indoctrinate our children with a secret liberal agenda, or infringe on the privacy of student data.

Education, like anything, can be undermined by excessive regulation or highly bureaucratized top-down control. And President Obama’s embrace of the standards as his idea has given the appearance that they are a Washington edict. It has politicized the issue and complicated the understanding of who initiated and led the development of these higher standards. 

Federal overreach is a real concern and one I share. But states working together to solve a shared problem is not a violation of federalism. It was state governors and state education chiefs who started and led the Common Core State Standards initiative. And state and local leaders retain authority over the implementation and assessments.

Common Core State Standards have critics on the political left and right. I respect thoughtful views, even if I do not agree with them. But I cannot tolerate the watered-down standards and expectations that exist for far too many students today.

Apart from higher standards, we must stop the practice of socially promoting functionally illiterate third-graders. By the time they enter fourth grade, children must have made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Otherwise, the inability to understand texts will cause them to fall farther behind every year and, too often, to drop out entirely.

Third, technology can increase the efficiency of education just as it has increased the efficiency of every other aspect of our lives. Digital learning should be an option for students. In fact, options across the board — charter schools, home schools, vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships — allow parents to shop for a school that best meets their child’s needs.

The reason there has been little innovation in public education is there has been little competition. We are confronted with opposition from unions and bureaucracies because they fear the loss of jobs and bloated pensions. We need an education marketplace that gives families a myriad of options. The presence of a competitor forces improvement.

Accountability is the cornerstone of reform. A system that does not set high standards, transparently measure progress, and hold schools and educators responsible for results will fail. You drive results not by dollars, but by child-centered policies and the courage to stick with them.

Finally, we need to stop treating teachers like interchangeable workers on an assembly line. Instead, we should recognize them and reward them as individual professionals. That will happen if we eliminate tenure and evaluate and pay teachers based on their performance, instead of how long they’ve been on the job.

If we don’t completely transform education, we are defaulting on the American dream.

America was founded on the principle that every American has the right to rise according to his or her abilities and hard work. Anyone can accomplish anything in America. It is why poor parents sacrifice to send their children to college. It is why people work long hours, start businesses, and take risks. The promise of economic mobility fuels innovation and entrepreneurship.

In my recent travels, I have been to incredibly dynamic cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Bogota, and Dubai. They want to beat us by becoming what we used to be — home to the best schools in the world. This is what our kids are up against. I suggest we prepare them.

— Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and serves as chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Foundation for Florida’s Future. 


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