04/02/2012 04:48 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Fixing American Education Chertok Interview Series, Part 3: How Do We Get Public Education From Here to Where It Needs to Be?

Once again, we have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Harry Chertok. Dr. Chertok is a recently retired high school principal with over 30 years experience in the field of education, the last 16 as a high school principal. He has supervised schools ranging in size from 300 to 5,000 students in both inner city and suburban settings.

MG -- Good to see you again Harry. This is the third and final installment of our series dealing with the state of public education in America. We began our discussion by asking "What's right with public education in America today?" We then proceeded to analyze "Where can public education be improved?" Today, I would like us to look into the future and address the question "How do we get public education from where it is today, to where it needs to be?"

HC -- Hi Mark. Clearly, the answer to the question of how we move forward is by far the most elusive. It is also the question that has been asked by almost every president since President Truman in 1947. In my opinion, the question should be, "Do we as a nation have the will to address this epidemic of failure in our public schools and are we willing to dedicate the needed resources?" I would submit to you that we are not quite there yet. That's not to say that we haven't mustered the will to attack other issues of this magnitude in the past. In 1938, President Roosevelt organized the precursor to The March of Dimes to combat infantile paralysis. His efforts culminated in the discovery and release of the Salk vaccine in 1955. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 by the Soviet Union accelerated our meager Space Program which ultimately landed us on the moon and opened the door for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

MG -- What about education? Surely there have been studies that addressed the need to improve public education in the past.

HC -- That's correct Mark. The sounding of the fire alarm should have been the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" commissioned by President Reagan. I believe that then-Secretary of Education, T.H. Bell summed up the findings of this report when he stated our current educational system "... fails to meet the needs of a competitive workforce." As a novice administrator at the time, I can state that following the publication of this report, there were a lot of meetings, memos, directives and hand wringing but nothing that really turned our system of public education around.

MG -- Well then, what will it take? In our last two meetings we have discussed crumbling school buildings, high dropout rates, student alienation, outdated technology, and a need for a revitalized teacher training program.

HC -- In my experience, it's going to take something that I have referred to in the past as Critical Mass. This can be defined as a point in time when all stakeholders, both political and the average citizens agree to work together to supply the needed resources, at whatever cost, to solve the problem. I will give you an example. This involves my first position as principal in an inner city high school. With my knowledge and two months after my appointment, the school was placed on the list of schools in danger of decertification by the New York State Board of Regents. I was given three years to correct the academic deficiencies or the school would be closed. After several meetings with local and city officials, parent groups, and members of the school board I was provided with the following; $500,000.00 for new textbooks, computer labs which replaced typing rooms, new science labs to replace 75 year old equipment, money for an R.O.T.C. program, additional funds for teacher training, and unlimited remedial classes for students. After 18 months we were able to remediate the deficiencies and the school was removed from the closure list.

MG -- How were these deficiencies identified and what forced the change?

HC - The deficiencies in the instructional program had existed for years, if not decades. The fact that the newest textbooks in the history classes were 25 years old was not a secret. In the mid-1990s, to still be teaching typing instead of computer science was a travesty and the abysmal test scores were well known to the N.Y.C. Board of Education. What changed was the publication and widespread awareness of failing state mandated test scores and the identification of the schools with the lowest graduation rates. To a great extent, the public embarrassment of many of the stakeholders is what made the difference.

MG -- In summary, can you give a few key points to take away from this discussion that warrant further investigation?

HC -- Certainly. It must be understood that for any significant change to take place in our system of public education we have to start with the culture of education in our society. We are no longer an agrarian society, therefore, the school day and school year must be longer. The responsibility for public education which was ceded to the states must be centralized with regard to uniformity of curriculum. In the future, we need a national core curriculum. The factory model of public education needs to be replaced with smaller schools, in modern settings, with lower teacher/pupil ratios. We must enhance the use of technology to facilitate a quality education for all students in all locations. Teacher training programs need to be revamped with longer supervised internship opportunities. We must also continue to attract the best and the brightest to the teaching profession. Lastly, we need to remember that most titans of industry -- medical doctors, politicians, and police officers -- probably completed some portion of a K-12 education in this country. Therefore, it's in everyone's best interest that we aspire to have the finest public education system possible.

MG -- Thank you again Harry. This brings us to the end of our three part series. Any final words for us to keep in mind?

HC -- People don't do what's important to them, they do what they care about. Many people believe diet and exercise are important, but they don't care enough about them to do them. To fix American education, we need to find a way to cause stakeholders to care enough to make it happen.

Also published in this series: "Part 1 - What's Right with Public Education?" and
"Part 2 - How Can We Improve Public Education?"