03/20/2012 06:28 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

Fixing American Education Chertok Interview Series: Part 1 -- What's Right With Public Education?

Today we have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Harry Chertok. Dr. Chertok is a recently retired high school principal with over 30 years of 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. It's too easy to immediately jump on what's bad or what's wrong with American education that continues to flame the debate, trigger defensiveness with very little gains. So instead I'd like to begin our discussion by asking the question "What's right with public education in America today?"

HC: Good morning Mark. What's right with public education today is the young men and women who are entering the field. When I became a teacher in the 1970s, many men were becoming teachers as a way to avoid the military draft and serving in Vietnam. Some of my friends, who first thought they would enter the field of medicine, became science teachers after seeing the results of their first medical school entrance exams. As many career paths were still limited for women, the field of education was a viable alternative. For many, education was a second choice career. A line from a Woody Allen movie from this era was emblematic of the way many people thought regarding teaching, "Those who can't do, teach!" Today, the field of education is the first career choice for many very capable young people. In addition, college graduates in fields other than education are choosing to teach for a finite period of time through programs such as Teach for America. Experienced, seasoned individuals seeking a second career are choosing the field of education at a greater rate than ever before.

MG: How has the organizational structure of schools changed?

HC: Schools in this country began in a single room where students of every grade level were taught simultaneously. By the end of the 19th century, public schools were modeled after a factory assembly line where efficiency was the prime concern. Today there are fewer gigantic factory model schools, and many smaller theme-based schools which better meet the needs and individual interests of their students. When I first became a high school principal in an inner city school, I supervised 5,000 students and 300 teachers. That school has since been broken up into several smaller theme-based schools and no longer exists.

MG: Is there any truth to the statement, "It takes a village to raise a child"?

There continues to be a better understanding, by the general public, of the complexities of present day teaching, and the need for parents and other stake holders to be partners in the educational process. That doesn't mean that they replace teachers, instead they reinforce the work of educators while at the same time teaching the social norms of a democratic society. Keep in mind the average school day in America is only 7 hours long and the average school year runs 180 days, a relatively small portion of a child's formative years.

MG: Over the course of your career, what positive changes in the delivery of instruction have you observed?

HC: When I began, education was teacher centered. Based primarily on the lecture model, the teacher was the sole determinate of what transpired in the classroom. Students where expected to sit in their seats quietly, take notes, work on drill and practice exercises, and speak only when directed to by the teacher. Homework was rote and reinforced the day's lesson. A big deal was a class trip to the school library to work on an individual report on a topic which the student may have helped select. All students on grade level were instructed the same way. More recently, the focus of instruction is the student. Varied teaching styles are incorporated into the same lesson to account for the individual learning styles of the student. The needs of visual, auditory, and tactile learners are all taken into account when a lesson is planned. The lecture model is used sparingly, and small group and project based instruction is more the norm. Teachers are more cognizant of the needs of their individual students and prescriptive in solving their student's instructional needs.

MG: How has the improvements in technology impacted the instructional programs in schools?

HC: Mark, you have to remember that when I started teaching the latest innovation was a motorized mimeograph machine (the precursor of the photocopy machine)! Certainly, the advent of the personal computer has forever changed the delivery of instruction. Alan November, a noted researcher in the field of educational technology has posited that before the use of computers, teachers controlled the entire instructional process. Teachers selected the subject to be taught, the books to be used in the classroom, the pages to be read, and the homework assignment. Students were passive participants in their own education. With computers, the walls of the school and the limits they imposed, no longer existed. Computers are used to find information, track student progress, reinforce the work covered in class, diagnosis weakness in a students' understanding and prescribe an instructional remedy. More recently, the availability of computer tablets and e-readers have the potential to make the worldwide web and current textbooks available to more students in economically disadvantaged areas of the country. Distance Learning, has made it possible for one teacher to teach many students in several different locations simultaneously. This is especially important in rural portions of the country where teachers of advanced subjects are difficult to find.

Next: Part 2 -- Where Public Education Can be Improved?