The Cost of Education Wars

01/01/2011 06:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Americans seem to be experts at starting and fighting wars over our children's education, rather than experts in building it.

In the 1980s we fought the reading wars, and in the 1990s, we battled over mathematics: Do students learn to read out of their experience with language or should they be taught phonics? Do reading textbooks do the best job, or is it more effective to get children to read voluminously? In math, we argued about whether "real world problems" should drive the curriculum, and fought about whether it was useful to let students invent their own methods for calculation.

And these wars had costs. American students were, overall, neither learning to read or to do math well enough. The education wars absorbed resources that could have been better deployed in the service of a system that could support the development of better instruction in reading and math, and in better results for children.

Now we are slipping rapidly into a new education war, this one about how to get better teaching for our nation's students. The good news is that we agree on something very important: Teaching matters. It matters in the poorest of communities and for the middle class. It matters for students of color and for white students. Skillful teaching can make the difference for students between being at the top of the class or the bottom, overriding differences in family income or skin color.

The disappointing news is that we are not using these agreements to figure out ways to get lots of skillful teaching in classrooms. Instead we are lining up for battle: Fire teachers. Pay good teachers more. Close colleges of education. Open alternate routes into teaching. End tenure. Measure teachers' performance based on their students' gains. Use portfolios to assess teachers' competence. We lob missiles with singular solutions instead of teaming up to build the systems we need to improve teaching and learning at the scale of this vast nation.

What we need instead of a new war is a realistic action plan to build a system that can deliver good education to the 50 million school-age youth in this country. The Common Core Standards, which specify a set of learning goals in mathematics and English language arts, are an important first step. Armed with unprecedented agreement about what students should know and be able to do, we must now build usable resources to support the teaching that it will take to help all students reach those goals. Tests of students' progress are needed, but to be useful, they must be geared to the actual curriculum. Useful tests must provide information not only for evaluation but also for instruction.

And we need a new system to equip the huge workforce of teachers in this country with the skills and knowledge needed to teach this curriculum effectively. Firing those who cannot do it, and hoping that the rest figure it out on the job -- or just increasing salaries of those who do figure it out -- will not make large numbers of teachers more effective.

Teaching demands substantial skill. We have knowledge about effective practice and must establish a range of ways for teachers to learn to practice skillfully, methods to assess teaching proficiency, and means to improve ineffective instruction. We also know a great deal about school leadership and schools that are built to support high-quality instruction.

Simply allowing great but isolated examples to flourish will not lead to a fundamental redesign of our system. We admire international educational systems, but recoil against the hard work it would take here to build our own strong system. This is like aspiring to run a marathon, and hoping to get there simply by envying elite runners. Being lambasted for not running better, or promising a large reward to run a sub-three hour marathon, cannot enable high performance running. Instead, successful runners follow tough training programs, staged and realistic, with the right supports and appropriate goals. To build a successful educational system, we need to do all this, and on a large scale.

It is time for a new campaign, not a new war. Its elements include common standards for students, and common professional systems to support high-quality teaching and schools. Doing this one classroom, school, district, or even state at a time is not a strategy for collective improvement. Instead of waving battle flags and shooting rhetoric, let's turn to the tough job of building the tools and resources for success, and the realistic incentives and structures for their effective use.