02/09/2011 07:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Army of Nation Builders: How National Conscription Can Save Public Education

You're a teacher and you get into a cab in America. There are two possibilities. The first, your driver is a local. He starts the small talk: "What do you do for a living?" You say you're a teacher. He starts gushing: "God bless you! You must have the patience of a saint to work with those kids."

The second, your driver is an immigrant (say, from South Korea). He starts the small talk. You say you're a teacher. He starts gushing: "God bless you! You know what we call teachers where I come from? Nation builders."

The lesson here: there's an oceanic prestige gap between American teachers and their colleagues overseas. The Obama administration has been trying to bridge that gap with noble efforts like its recruitment website and, most recently, with the president's reference to that South Korean colloquialism in his State of the Union. Getting America's finest human capital into its classrooms is an essential feature of president's strategy to address this generation's "Sputnik moment." But when he advocated for education's role in this plan, the president failed to recognize that the crisis facing America's children is not a Soviet satellite, but a Pearl Harbor -- a disaster so cataclysmic that it requires the attention of the entire nation. This time, it's not just Japan that's kicking our butts, 13 other countries outperformed us in the most recent educational rankings released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

We must go to war against our failing education system. But conventional weapons like charter schools and federal grants aren't the answer. What we need is a nuclear option. What we need to do is explode the way we think about public education altogether. What we need is national conscription.

Every year, 3 million people graduate from high school and another 1.65 million graduate from college. In this economy, as we all know, their job prospects look grim. Now imagine if all of these people, currently uncertain about their futures, knew exactly what they were going to do for the two years following the completion of their education: they, in some way, shape, or form, were going to serve their country.

Now, America will always need an army. But there are other things it will always need: police officers, garbage men, park rangers, social workers, public defenders, etc. All of these could be filled by conscripts with the appropriate education and qualifications. Let's say that every year, approximately 5 million people finish their final year of education, be it high school, college, or graduate school and are prepared to enlist. Let's say we allocate 150,000 dollars over two years to each of those individuals to cover training, salary, benefits, and, down the line, student loan payments. The program would cost us 750 billion dollars, one fifth of the 3.5 trillion dollar federal budget and no small change. But consider how many job shortages could be filled by conscripts, not to mention the fact that many public services would suddenly become less expensive because those doing them would now have no other option.

That last point may sound a bit cavalier, but the cost benefits of national conscription are hardly its most compelling. Imagine, amidst our ever uglying national discourse, the value of bringing Americans of diverse backgrounds together in their formative years. Imagine a young man from New York City guiding visitors at Yellowstone, or a young woman from Mississippi representing lawyerless defendants in Boston. Imagine forging a nation of tolerance through a unifying, eye-opening experience like national service.

And there is no better place to set that vision than in our schools. Education offers a smorgasbord of opportunities ripe for conscripts: guidance counselors, custodians, security guards, secretaries, tutors, and yes, teachers.

But how would national conscription address the critical prestige gap the President Obama highlighted during the State of the Union? Shouldn't the president's shout-out and other efforts have been enough to alter at least a few career paths? The idea seems straightforward enough: I will use my pulpit to push education into the pantheon of prominent professions alongside medicine and law, and the best and brightest will flock en masse back to the schools that made them the best and brightest, craving classrooms of their very own.

Yet this top down approach fails to appreciate the implications of the most successful remedy to the prestige gap to date (and one that just so happens to assimilate quite nicely with our plan for national service): Teach For America (TFA) -- the national teacher corps that places America's most promising college graduates in America's most challenging public schools for a two-year commitment. By asking this country's most talented young people to pledge two years to the cause of ending educational inequity, TFA has succeeded in seeding a grassroots movement of college graduates begging for the opportunity to tackle our nation's greatest injustice and gravest predicament. Last year applications soared to over 46,000, while only 12 percent were accepted.

Best of all, adding this calculus to our national conscription plan actually works out for the needs of the teaching force. According to the American Federation of Teachers, schools need to hire approximately 200,000 new teachers every year. If we apply TFA's rigorous admissions process and 12 percent acceptance rate to the nation's 1.65 million college graduates, we arrive at 198,000 teachers, exactly the number we need.

As for school administrators, why couldn't we have "officer training" programs? And if anyone wanted to make a career out of their work, what's to stop them? After the two years, their salaries could be picked up at the local level and scale up accordingly.

Finally, the accelerants responsible for the burnout that extinguishes so many teaching careers -- lacking of planning time, too heavy a workload, and problematic student behavior -- would be abated by the efforts of other conscripts. Increased support from wrap-around services provided by conscripted tutors, classroom assistants, social workers, and more, would allow teachers to focus on the most important part of their job description: fattening their students with knowledge, skills, and dreams.

But most significantly, under this new regime of national service, the teaching profession would achieve the prestige it deserves. Teachers would have to deal with cab conversations that only have one possible conclusion: "Thank you for being a nation builder."