05/01/2007 06:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Fix the Public Schools

It is really truly hard to keep track of all the studies and reports that appear on what seems to be a daily basis about how to fix the public schools. There have been at least three in the last few days, and the week isn't over yet.

Last Friday, The Los Angeles Times told of a new study that documented why so many teachers quit in less than five years on the job, not because of low pay but because of working conditions (interruptions, lack of discipline, overcrowding, shortage of supplies, unnecessary meetings, etc). Across the state of California, 22% of teachers leave within four years of starting; in New York City, the proportion of new teachers who leave is 40%.

This past Monday, The Washington Post described a new report in which 18 "top teachers" called for new pay scales for teachers that reward "leadership, not seniority."

Then on Tuesday of this week, Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times leaked a "bold three-point plan" to improve American schools, as follows: 1) end teacher certification; 2) make it tougher for teachers to get tenure so that weak teachers can be eliminated after two or three years; and 3) award $15,000 annual bonuses to "good teachers for as long as they teach at schools in low-income areas." This study, from a group calling itself the Hamilton Project, recommends the elimination of the bottom 25 percent of new teachers after two or three years on the job.

So, which is the root of poor achievement:

Poor working conditions that drive out good teachers?

Pay scales that pay mediocre teachers as much as good teachers?

Too many weak teachers in low-income schools?

Or none of the above?

Wouldn't it be great if the authors of these reports agreed to sit down in a room and tried to reach common ground? Maybe there should be a giant convention of all the people who write reports like these, where they could argue about their proposals and assumptions.

For one thing, it appears that about a quarter to forty percent of all new teachers leave to do something else within three to five years. Most of them, before they get tenure, have already figured out that this is not the right job for them, or that the working conditions are so impossible that they can't succeed. So if the Hamilton Project people weed out another 25%, we can be sure of having a genuine teacher shortage, unless they are weeding out the same teachers who plan to leave anyway.

I have a bold plan to make teaching a more attractive profession:

First, let's figure out why so many students are unwilling to behave in the classroom and do the work that is assigned to them.

Second, let's review the laws and court decisions that make it difficult to maintain a culture of high expectations and good behavior in the schools.

Third, let's make sure that schools have a solid curriculum in science, history, the arts, literature, and math so that teachers know what they are expected to teach and are well prepared to teach it.

Fourth, let's ease up on the testing mania and put the emphasis where it belongs: on providing a great education.

People go into teaching because they want to teach. Teaching is not like a business or corporation where managers jump from job to job and where people have to be incentivized to work harder or longer hours. Teaching is hard work, and the rest of us should not do anything to make it harder. State and local education authorities should focus on improving the conditions in the schools so that teachers can do the job they prepared to do.