I spent the day at the Innovation Economy conference, organised by the indefatigable Aspen Institute and Intel. An interesting programme. You can watch videos at the website. I especially recommend the interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan from Monday, and today’s panel on the same subject featuring Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein (speaking of indefatigable: chancellors of DC schools and NYC schools respectively), together with John Hennessy (president of Stanford).
America’s most debilitating long-term problem is its underperforming schools, and the twin, ever-widening education deficits that result: the domestic gap between winners and losers, and the international gap between US and foreign schoolchildren in the aggregate. Many Americans seem unaware how badly the country, which once led the world in education, has fallen behind. They are misled, perhaps, by the continuing pre-eminence of its elite universities. Elsewhere, the US has slipped way down the international league tables. A country cannot expect to prosper with so many bad or mediocre schools.
The policymakers, at least, are aware. Agreement on what needs to be done was total. Accountability; competition; pay for performance; finding and training good teachers, and shedding bad ones. It’s not that hard, in principle. In practice, because of the teachers’ unions, it’s like pulling teeth.
People with the same right ideas now occupy these critical positions, and Obama too is apparently on board. Klein said he regards “Race to the Top” as the most important national initiative on education he has encountered. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens. If not now, when?