03/27/2012 09:26 am ET Updated May 27, 2012

Fixing American Education Chertok Interview Series, Part 2: How Can We Improve Public Education?

(Fixing American Education - Part 2 - What's Right With Public Education?)

Today we have another 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 morning Harry. Last time we spoke, we began our discussion with the question "What's right with public education in America today?" Today I'd like to take a different tack and ask "How Can We Improve Public Education?"

HC - Good morning Mark. I believe that if we are going to be successful in changing the landscape of public education, then we have to begin with teacher training programs. In 2006, Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, published a report which in summary stated that students entering the field of education are underprepared for the classroom. He specifically pointed out a need for teacher training programs to have higher standards and place more emphasis on content knowledge than is presently provided. Furthermore, each school of education should have a "laboratory school" relationship with one of more public schools in proximity to the university. This relationship would be similar to the one that exists between medical schools and teaching hospitals. All too often I have seen very dedicated, well meaning novice teachers quit during their first year of teaching because they are under prepared for the rigors of the classroom.

MG - Since your premise is it's all about the teacher, how do we attract the best and the brightest to the field of education?

HC - First, we must end the century old debate as to whether teaching is a profession or a vocation. I'm of the opinion that teaching is a profession which requires a rigorous training program, methodology that is based on research, an internship and government mandated testing. Along with the public's recognition of teaching as a profession it must include the autonomy that is given to practitioners of other professions. Teachers need to be able to make prescriptive decisions regarding the best course of instruction for each individual student. Society must also convey the respect and prestige that they give to the other "learned professions" such as medicine, law and divinity. Finally, the compensation must reflect the level of education required, which in most states is a Master's degree.

MG - What about infrastructure? Some of the schools I've visited are in pretty rough shape.

HC - You're correct Mark, many of our schools are in abysmal shape. This is especially the case in the inner city where many school buildings are approaching the century mark in age. Most of the schools that I have worked in had issues with asbestos, lead paint and nonfunctioning heating plants. In the winter students sat with their coats on and in the spring and summer room temperatures soared to over 100 degrees. These are not conditions that are safe and certainly not conducive to learning. In addition, as the need for technology increases, many schools find that they're inadequately wired for computers, smart boards, and advanced science labs. We also find that increasingly schools have to allocate resources for safety measures that were not needed in the past. Security cameras, metal detectors, baggage scanners and devices to secure computers are just a few of the areas where scarce resources now have to be used.

MG - The dropout rate among Black and Hispanic students is at an all time high. How should that problem be addressed?

HC - I agree that this is one of the most pressing issues that we have to deal with in public education today. There are many reasons why students dropout and I would like to make it clear that none of these reasons have anything to do with the innate ability of these students. Economic stressors, the structure of the modern family, language acquisition, student academic support structures and parental involvement are just a few of the issues that impact the dropout rate today. Student mobility is also an issue. In some low performing schools, up to 50% of the student body move every year. It's very difficult to develop, and follow through, with a course of remediation when a student finds themselves in a new school every year. Parent involvement continues to be an issue especially at the secondary level. As principal, I dealt with this problem by making my parents true partners in the educational process. I did this by giving my parents association an office in the school. This allowed me to use my parents as readily available good will ambassadors to visitors to our school. It also made it possible for me to disseminate timely information to the school community and other stakeholders. I was able to do this successfully in both inner city and suburban schools.

MG - What is the likelihood that these needed changes will occur?

HC - Mark, I don't think we have a choice. If we as Americans want to maintain or enhance our position in the global community then we have to commit the resources that are needed to remediate an educational system that has been floundering for decades. A high quality public education system has always been and will always be the bedrock of a successful democratic society.

MG - Harry, thank you for taking the time and sharing your thoughts about public education. We hope you're enjoying a well deserved retirement.