Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Ask the Experts: Education

Reading Time: 5 minutesWhat should be the top priority for improving education?
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Joel Klein Answers:

In an increasingly competitive global economy, the only way America’s kids will be able to succeed is if the culture of public education is focused on performance and accountability.

To prepare students for a workforce in which college is fast becoming a necessity, we need to start with great teachers. Excellence in the classroom, regardless of economic status, race or previous achievement levels, depends more on teacher quality than on any other single factor.

Sadly, a 2007 report by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce warned that too many of our teachers come from the bottom-third of college-bound high school students. Conversely, we know that the countries that perform highest on international education tests, like Finland, recruit from the top portion of their college graduates.

We should treat our teachers like professionals, give them the tools and support to develop, and reward the highest-performing.

Equally important is the material we teach our children. To address the gap between what high school graduates know now and what they need to compete in college, we need new, more rigorous standards.

In New York City, our schools are already working to integrate the tougher Common Core standards into their curricula. Students will be exposed to more critical thinking and college-level reading and writing.  And because we are giving families more choices, including some highly successful charter schools—schools can no longer afford to coast, because parents are voting with their feet.

The work of rewarding excellent teachers, raising standards and exposing our students to challenging coursework from early childhood won’t be easy. But these things are crucial for the nation to thrive and maintain its stature in the twenty-first-century. We must, and will, meet the challenges of public education head-on.


Minister Melanio Paredes Answers:

A quality education for all, in each of our countries, should not be limited to the question of reach and access. We must place a priority on the quality of educational services. In the Dominican Republic we have focused on three areas: what and how children and young people learn, how our teachers teach, and how schools operate. We believe that to be successful, schools must be innovative and, in a word, effective.

The projects we have been advancing are focused on ensuring that children and young people learn basic standards that draw on an established curriculum. These standards form the framework for basic performance levels that children must meet from five years of age to the last year of middle school or high school.

We must focus attention on those who make a difference in quality—teachers. We need to match performance indicators for pupils with performance indicators for educators. For this we are identifying competence profiles and best practices in the classroom that track with indicators or with the performance that we expect from our students.
As far as families are concerned, we believe that the participation of parents in classroom committees is fundamental. This enables committed involvement by parents in all aspects of their children’s development while seeking to strengthen values, habits and a respect for the environment and a culture of peace.

All of this constitutes what we call the Virtuous Triangle of Learning: students learn, teachers guide and encourage, and families accompany their children’s progress in truly effective schools. It is part of a greater framework, which we call “Mission 1000 x 1000,” which calls for ensuring a minimum of a thousand effective, quality teaching hours.

Our commitment is comprehensive. Only when we use all possible means to support the learning process of our students can we successfully link the expectations of twenty-first century students with our aging schools, so that these schools may meet the challenges of the present.


Michelle Rhee Answers:

Our most important priority is to ensure that every child in America, regardless of zip code, skin color and background, has an excellent teacher leading his or her classroom.

We all hear about the American Dream but, especially in urban schools, children are not getting the education they need to live it. They are still reliant on luck to get a great education, and this goes completely counter to what we believe as a country. Study after study shows the power of a teacher in helping students overcome the obstacles of poverty to achieve at high levels.  Recently a preliminary study came out showing that if we were to pay kindergarten teachers according to the future earning potential of their students, we would have to pay successful teachers $320,000 per year. A study from Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution showed that if we were to replace just 6 to 10 percent of a school system’s least effective teachers with average teachers, student performance would skyrocket, placing us as one of the top performing nations.

While we can’t afford to pay our teachers $320,000 salaries, in Washington DC we’ve made big strides through a collective bargaining agreement that will allow us to significantly compensate teachers who deliver results. We’re also making the hard decisions necessary to remove ineffective teachers from the system. It’s never easy to let staff go, but the further our children’s skills fall compared to those of children in other nations, the more urgent it is for everyone to get the message: we can’t fritter around the edges anymore.

Excellent teachers are the solution to the most vexing problems we face. We need a wider national understanding that our teacher force is the foundation for quality in education, and that education is the foundation for everything! Quality of life, crime rates, innovation in business, quality of government and city services, and the connectedness of our communities will fall squarely on the shoulders of the children we graduate from our schools. Only great teachers can make sure their shoulders are strong enough.


Marcelo Cabrol Answers:

School attendance in Latin America has increased exponentially in the last two decades. The increase in educational access has been led mostly by the incorporation of previously excluded children and youth—poor, rural and indigenous populations—which has created a heterogeneous pool of students with diverse needs, abilities and interests. However, the quality of learning remains low, especially in those schools attended by children from poor families.

Evidence collected by the Inter-American Development Bank shows that the quality of education is linked to the quality of teachers. The top priority for improving education in Latin America is improving the quality of teachers.
Teachers must be able to provide their students with the necessary abilities to succeed in life. Teachers must excel in the cognitive and noncognitive skills they seek to teach their students.

More, and better, teachers must be allocated to teach disadvantaged students–poor, rural and ethnic minorities–in order to compensate for the disadvantages these kids come to school with. Finally, with increased coverage, the diversity of personalities, socioeconomic backgrounds and family dynamics have increased as well. Children and youth are exposed to violence and societies filled with poverty and discrimination. Involvement in risky behaviors related to this adverse social reality has negatively affected school attendance and learning.

The role of schools and teachers goes beyond academic preparation to the promotion of social cohesion. Schools and teachers now have the additional role of nurturing students, helping them lead and overcome the personal problems they face outside school, and, in the end, guiding them to stay in school and to move successfully through school and into their lifelong journeys.


Richard Robinson Answers:

Today we live in a world full of digital information. Yet reading has never been more important; the ability to read is the door opener to the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, too many children in the United States cannot read at grade level and are far more likely to drop out of school.

Our soaring dropout rate results in tens of thousands of young people without direction, opportunity or hope. Improving education in the U.S. must begin with literacy for all, because in the twenty-first century, the ability to read is necessary, not only to succeed but to survive.

Students need to read nonfiction for information to understand their world, and literature to understand themselves. It is the ability to understand information and the power of stories that provide the key to a life of purpose and meaning.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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