In 1983, a presidential commission issued the landmark report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” The report warned that despite an increase in spending, the U.S. public education system was at risk of failure “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” the report declared, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein often quotes the commission before discussing how U.S. schools have fared since it issued its report. Despite nearly doubling per capita spending on education over the past few decades, American 15-year olds fared dismally in standardized math tests given in 2000, placing 18th out of 27 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Six years later, the U.S. had slipped to 25th out of 30. If Americans have been fighting against mediocrity in education since 1983, they are losing the battle.
What could turn things around? At a recent event that I organized at the Columbia Business School, Klein opened with his harsh assessment of the situation, and researchers offered some stark options for getting American education back on track. We could find drastically better ways of training teachers or improve our hiring practices so we’re bringing aboard better teachers in the first place. Barring these improvements, the only option left is firing low-performing teachers–who have traditionally had lifetime tenure–en masse.