Fixing K-12 Education

This post was triggered by John Warner (@SwampFox) tweeting a link to an editorial in a South Carolina newspaper.

South Carolina needs a personalized education for every student

Go read it. I actually agree with a lot of it, especially this paragraph:

A personalized, customized education for every student is the future of education. A student-centered approach will transform education from a system that treats students as identical units, teachers as assembly line workers, and administrators as managers who work to meet production quotas of dubious quality. It’s not the people in the system who are stifling progress. It’s the system itself that must be replaced.

But I replied to John in a series of tweets

Not sure if I agree. You and I didn’t get “personalized education” & we turned out OK. Restore discipline & fire 10% teachers/year

With current educrats, “personalized education” means “more excuses why Johnny can’t read.” Time to end excuses, fire bad teachers

Bring back shop classes, quit pretending all kids should go to college, upgrade technical schools

“Health care and education are next up for fundamental software-based transformation.” I hope Marc Andreessen is right!

Then I realized that what I was trying to say really doesn’t fit into 140 characters. This post is over 15,000 characters!

K-12 education is badly broken in this country. Nearly thirty years ago, the “A Nation at Risk” report stated that

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Things have only gotten worse since 1983.

Kati Haycock, President of the Education Trust, gave a viciously factual presentation to Georgia Forward this week. You can dig back in my tweetstream for some of her points:

Single most determinative predictor of future income is high school mathematics performance

No matter how you slice the data, USA is not keeping pace with international competitiors in K-12

It’s not just poor kids. Even USA’s top 5% ranks 23rd out of 29th compared to top 5% elsewhere.

USA one of only two developed countries where young people in 2010 have not achieved higher education than parents

U.S. African-American and Hispanic high school graduates score 4 years behind white students in reading and math

Success stories from Frankford Elem, Delaware; George Hall Elem, Mobile, AL. Fired all teachers for lack of vision

Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High, NY: low incomes, but high scores, high grad rates

Same exam given to low-income African-American students in Boston and Washington DC: 19% diff (two grade levels)

Family issues and poverty matter, but not as much as teachers who are in it to win

Need to demand more from students. Convince them that taking challenging classes in HS makes a difference later

It’s a lot easier to start a good school than to fix a bad one. Aggressively shut ’em down, transfer only good teachers

Good teachers don’t give up on any kids.

No teacher should be allowed to perform poorly for more than two years. They do too much damage. Move them out.

Or you can read more coherent statements at the Education Trust website.

There are some good arguments to be made about getting the government out of the school business entirely, and you can read about them at the Alliance for the Separation of School & State. But, for the purposes of this blog post, I’m assuming we’ve decided as a society that there is value in a publicly-financed universally-available public school system. A better one than we have today.

A Grand Bargain

Synthesizing all the discussions I’ve had in the last week about K-12 education, and using the language of the debt-ceiling crisis, I propose a Grand Bargain.

  • Immediately double the salaries of all classroom teachers.

In 2011, the median starting salary of a B.S. graduate from Georgia Tech was $60,350.

The recent average starting salary of a teacher in Georgia was $34,442. Double that is almost $70K. That would get the attention of any recent Georgia Tech graduate.

But, in return for doubling their salaries, teachers would have to accept some fundamental changes in how we run the business of public education.

  1. Salary doubling only applies to classroom teachers. If you spend more than 50% of your time in a classroom in front of students, your salary is doubled. If less than 50%, you get a pro-rata increase. If less than 10%, no increase at all.
  2. Employment is year-round. No more summers off. The school year is going to get longer… the kids aren’t bringing in the crops anymore. In return for your doubled salary, you’re expected to be at the school(or in continuing ed classes) all year. When the students aren’t there, you’ll be “sharpening your saw.” Curriculum development, skill development, proficiency testing, team projects with other teachers… there’s plenty to do.
  3. Immediate end to K-12 teacher tenure. There are valid arguments for tenure in a research university. (And valid arguments against it, but that’s a different blog post.) There are none for K-12 teachers. End it, now.
  4. Principals have complete authority to hire and fire teachers. No more deadwood. No more passing the deadwood back and forth between classes and between schools. If you’re not earning your newly-doubled salary, you have to find another line of work.
  5. School boards have complete authority to hire and fire principals. Same as above.
  6. A supermajority of parents can fire any teacher. I suggest 3/4ths of all parents with children in a teacher’s current classes. If a teacher receives such a vote of “no confidence,” he or she cannot be moved to a different job in the same district.
  7. An end to credentialism. Last week, I heard of an Army officer with a degree in engineering who taught mathematics at West Point to military cadets. He retired to Georgia and wanted to teach math in the local high school. He wasn’t qualified because he didn’t have a degree in education. That’s absurd. If someone wants to teach, and if they can convince a school principal that they can do the work, they should get the chance. There are valid pedagogical skills that can be taught, and teachers should learn them, but you do not need a B.A. or M.A. to demonstrate mastery of those skills. Mastery of the source material is far more important.
  8. Restore discipline. If a child wants to disrupt class, let him or her do it down the hall, in a classroom dedicated to the purpose. I suggest staffing it with military vets returned from Iraq and Afghanistan who are looking for work. The doubled salaries should get their attention, and the end of credentialism will make it easy for them to give it a try.
  9. Bring back shop class. We’ve created a generation (or two) who think the objective of high school is to go to college—and that any child who can’t or won’t go to college is doomed to flipping burgers… or dealing drugs. Not true. In Roanoke last month, I heard the head of Huntington Ingalls shipyards explain that he needed to hire 4500 skilled welders, at salaries of $100,000/year, but he can’t find them. The kids who should have been going to technical colleges to learn how to weld went to the local four-year college instead to get a degree in Critical Studies. Now they’re flipping burgers, and the welding jobs go unfilled. That needs to be fixed.
  10. Repeal ‘No Child Left Behind.’ It’s failed, and everyone knows it. “No Child Left Behind” has turned out to mean “No child gets ahead.” We’re not in Lake Wobegon, and not all our kids are above average. Repeal it, and try again… salvage any good parts in a new bill.
  11. Everyone learns to read. There are far too many kids being kicked along the grade path who cannot read. There are as many excuses as there are “educators.” But the truth is, almost every child can learn to read, if it is expected of them and if they’re taught appropriate phonics skills.

    If a grade school student can’t demonstrate reading proficiency on unfamiliar material by, say, the fourth grade… he or she gets taken out of class and drilled on reading until they can do it. Then they may be returned to class, or rotated back a year. If that means the child takes 13 years to graduate from high school… so be it.

    (There are a small number of unfortunate children who—through injury or illness or genetic bad luck—are actually and truly unable to learn to read. One of them is in my extended family. We should do something kind for them. But we shouldn’t build policy around them, and we shouldn’t exaggerate their extent. Based on demonstrated literacy rates elsewhere on the planet, I suspect the number is less than 2%, and I do not believe anyone who claims it is over 5%. Therefore: 95% of students must learn to read. A very few get taken out of the classroom and taught to the best of their capabilities.)
  12. Everyone learns basic math. Same as above. Rather than reproduce the arguments of Mathematically Correct, I’ll just link you to their website and you can read for yourself.

Now, before the screams and wailing and gnashing of teeth begins… if you’re a good teacher, why wouldn’t you jump at this deal? Doubling your salary to do more of what you entered the teaching profession to do in the first place. How can you argue with that?

And if you’re a teacher who opposes such a deal… what does that say about you, and your confidence in your ability to teach your students?

(If you’re a K-12 administrator who doesn’t teach… this shouldn’t cause you any grief. You continue extracting the same salary from the taxpayers as before. What’s your problem?)

How Do We Pay For It?

How do we pay for anything these days? Borrow the money from the Chinese.

Seriously: the states are broke. So do it at the Federal level. Add up the total salary of a district’s public school teachers, and have the U.S. Department of Education write the district a block grant for the same amount… wrapped in fearsome and enforceable legal restrictions that the money can only go to doubling classroom teacher salaries, and not to new buildings, new basketball courts, or new staffers for district supervisors.

Yes, this would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. So did TARP, and that was frittered away uselessly. At least putting money into teachers’ pockets would be an actual economic “stimulus” since they’re likely to spend it, and spend it in this country.

Since I don’t like open-ended Federal obligations, ramp it down over ten years: block grants of 100% in Year One, 90% in Year Two, down to zero in Year Eleven. What happens as the grant goes down?

Probably several different things.

  • Some school districts would decide the doubled salaries are important, and raise the taxes from their local millage rates or whatever mechanism they use.
  • Some districts would choose to keep the higher salaries, but adjust class sizes so that the successful teachers would teach more students. Over ten years, class sizes could double with no ill effect. Good teachers with effective discipline could easily manage the larger class sizes. After all, they used to do just that, fifty years ago. “What Man has achieved, Man can aspire to.”
  • Some districts would keep the higher salaries, but make up part of the difference by firing non-teaching school administrators.
  • Some districts would let salaries drift lower, and see if they continue to attract and retain good teachers.
  • Some districts would try a combination of the above.
  • Some districts (and states) would lobby Congress to extend the block grants. Ignore them.

States (and smaller political subdivisions) used to be “laboratories of democracy.” Let them experiment! Could the result possibly be worse than what we have now?


I’ll end with John Warner’s tweet to me this morning:

Must move from education designed for 19th century industrial revolution, to educ designed for 21st century creative economy

Well, yes. John and Marc Andreessen and Clayton Christensen are right. We need to reinvent the educational process, and technology will play an important role in that process. I look forward to being able to develop “personalized education” for every student.

But when a patient is wheeled into the emergency room with a sucking chest wound and a broken leg, you focus on the sucking chest wound. First, stop the bleeding. Then we’ll have the time and resources to experiment with new structures, new techniques, and new technologies.

I joined the board of trustees of a local charter school eight years ago, spent several years on the curriculum committee, and have learned a lot about the current stage of education. I naively thought that technology was the solution: “Laptops! Eight o’clock! Day One!” Then we realized we were getting incoming ninth-graders who were reading and calculating at 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grade level. First, stop the bleeding. We quickly gave up on universal laptops, and started focusing on discipline, high expectations, and teachers who really believe these kids can succeed. It’s working.

We can make it work nationwide.

Double teacher salaries. Expect the teachers to succeed, and don’t tolerate failure. Expect the kids to succeed, and don’t tolerate lack of discipline. Then stand back and watch American students knock our socks off.

Photo credit: dok1


  1. Food for thought: What if teachers (or schools) were “paid” 0.5-1.0% of students’ future earnings? Sort of like an alumni association / endowment system applied to K-12.

    I can think of several benefits (eg. aligned long-term interests between educators and their students) and drawbacks (eg. the system would be “back loaded” in terms of compensation; you’d have to float the first decade or two). But it’s interesting to think about…

  2. Great post and wish that some of these things would see the light of day in a legislative process. My thoughts:

    1) It is unknown if better quality teaching can be extracted from the existing pool of teachers (even with the double salaries and free reign on firing for poor performance) or if we’d have to wait for a new batch of teachers to enter the work force.

    2) Teachers already make a higher wage when you subtract the three months they get off every year.

    3) No mention of teacher’s unions 🙁

    4) Principals are just former teachers, used to the status quo, and aren’t necessarily good choices to enforce a performance-based model.

    5) I’m uneasy about any new federal spending programs. Bad gov’t decisions with TARP, et al. don’t justify it borrowing more from the Chinese.

    6) I really liked the paragraph about Shop Class. It echoes some of my thoughts, here:

  3. Good stuff, John @Melonakos. Agreed on (1) and (4). Rather than pre-judging, I’d like to leave it as “not proven” and see what happens.

    (2) Yep. I forgot to include that in my original post, and I’ve since added it (second bullet under Grand Bargain).

    (3) Georgia has no teachers’ unions and lousy performance. Massachusetts has strong teachers’ unions, and comparatively good performance. I’m not opposed to unions in principle. I *am* opposed to unions protecting incompetent, despondent, or out-of-date teachers. I tried to address that without attacking unions directly.

    (5) Me, too. But if we’re going to spend (and we apparently are, until the wheels come off the bus as we’ve seen in Greece), let’s at least spend — whoops, “invest” — in areas that might actually make a difference.

    (6) Great post! I hope everyone follows the link.

  4. Caveat emptor, I only keep in touch with my good teachers.

    But the good teachers don’t really get 3 months off (or perhaps better said don’t *take* 3 months off). They get 3 months of not having to be at the school building. That doesn’t mean they’re not doing anything, just like I’m up at 3am today at home updating the Pivotal tasks for the week at work.


  1. […] discussion about K-12, I heard nothing to change my opinion from what I wrote last August: Fixing K-12 Education.) In fact, one panelist stated that companies would rather hire students with a GED than a high […]