08/17/2011 01:58 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2011

Are We Serious About Fixing Our Education System?

Whose fault is it when healthy fourth or fifth-graders miss 15 to 20 days of school each year, when they regularly show up late to class, and when they rarely if ever complete their homework assignments? Do we blame these 10-year old students for such lapses? Do we blame their parents? Their teachers? The teachers' union?

Consider: When it's a high school senior or college student who exhibits the same lack of discipline, we know exactly whom to blame. Clearly, it's the student's fault. But because 10-year olds are still at the mercy of their parents -- depending on them to feed, clothe, shelter them and establish a household work ethic -- laying even part of the blame on the kids seems not only unrealistic but counterproductive.

Yet, bizarre as it seems, in the public school system as it exists today, when kids miss class or fail to turn in their work, it's neither the child nor the parent who gets the blame. It's the teachers who get clobbered. Or, more accurately, the teachers' union.

In contrast to private schools -- where entrance exams are required, tardiness and excessive absenteeism are not permitted, and recalcitrant students are routinely booted out of class -- public school is an all-inclusive, warm body institution. Attendance is not only free, it's mandatory. In California you're required to remain in school until you're 16. And because attendance is mandatory, it's only natural that many of the marginal and less motivated students are going to regard it as one cut above prison.

Given these staggering challenges, what are public school teachers supposed to do? How are they supposed to handle a classroom full of uninspired, truant, tardy, undisciplined kids who are there only because the law requires it, and whose parents offer little or no support or encouragement? How do they motivate students as woefully unprepared and unreceptive as these?

Answer: According to conventional wisdom, they're supposed to pretend these defects don't exist and embrace the fiction that the universe begins and ends in the classroom. They're supposed to shut up, stop whining, and go about the task of getting these kids ready to do well on standardized tests; get them to behave like "serious" students so that the American taxpayer won't feel cheated by underwriting teachers' salaries. That's the orthodoxy.

But if you ask teachers what their "dream class" would be, they'll tell you it would consist of students who'd gotten sufficient sleep, eaten a nutritious breakfast, completed their homework assignments, and are sitting at their desks, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready and relatively eager to learn their lessons. The students don't need to be budding geniuses. They don't even need to be above average. All they need to be is relatively prepared.

Arguably, one way of achieving this "dream class" would be to appeal directly to the parents. Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on consultants, experimental techniques, teacher bonuses, outreach programs, etc., give that money directly to the parents. Offer the parents money for their child's performance -- for perfect (or near perfect) attendance, for their child completing his or her homework each day, for improved test scores.

High school athletes and academic whizzes are awarded scholarships for their performances on the athletic field and in the classroom. Correspondingly, because fourth-graders are still at the mercy of their home environments, similar "scholarships" should be offered to their parents. Give a family $100 if the kid misses one day or less a year; give them $100 if the kid turns in all (or almost all) of his homework; give them $200 if the kid significantly improves his annual test scores.

Naturally, people will freak out over this proposal, arguing that such a program is unAmerican, that it's not only wasteful and reckless, but that it sends the wrong message by encouraging materialistic remuneration for something -- a good, solid education -- that should be its own reward. They're absolutely right. A good education should be its own reward. But, clearly, it ain't.

Instead of painting ourselves into a self-righteous corner by refusing to budge because of adherence to some abstract principle relating to virtue being its own reward, we should come to grips with the sociological realities that confront us and proceed accordingly.

If these underachieving, undermotivated 10-year olds are going to make it, they're going to require some sort of impetus; they're going to need something to keep them focused academically. And it can't simply be their teachers. It has to be the people who play the most important and decisive role in their lives. It has to be their parents.

And if it takes money to motivate the parents, then so be it. Since when did paying for stuff become alien to us? We bailed out Wall Street. We bailed out General Motors. We continue to prop up foreign governments friendly to us. Is it so farfetched to begin investing in American families? Clearly, we need to do something.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at