American students rank 14th in the world in reading, 17th in science, 25th in math. The Slovak Republic and Estonia do a better job preparing students, and with far fewer resources.
The way I see it, we can continue doing the same things over and over again — including "reforms" like merit pay and charter schools — and expect a different result. But that wouldn't say much for the nation's collective mental health. Or we can start thinking radically about public education.
Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, puts it this way: "We put reforms through our existing system, and when they do not work as we had hoped, we ask what is wrong with the reform, when we should instead be asking what is wrong with the system."
Mehta's thoughts were published last week by the American Enterprise Institute. He presented what he calls five pathways to completely reshaping schools. Each is different, and each is radical. And each would take a long time to work.
The idea is that stakeholders, from politicians right down to parents, need to decide how to proceed. But whatever happens needs to be radical.
His first pathway would be to take what is a bureaucratic system and make it a professional one. Change every aspect of how teachers are recruited and trained. Make it harder to achieve tenure and demonstrate teaching mastery.
With time, Mehta believes, a "new knowledge infrastructure" would be created within the profession and teachers would be treated more like those in other professions — as experts with "a degree of professional power."
His second idea would be to reform schools from the outside in, letting a new education infrastructure, already forming in the private sector, replace the old. Private charter operators and alternative teacher certification providers are providing new pathways in the new century.
Mehta's third idea is to take everything apart and put it back together differently. Instead of schools that offer traditional math, science, English and history, let schools serve as general contractors that hire outside organizations to teach each specialty.
This could be done by a combination of online and in-person methods. Students could customize learning to fit their needs, allowing creativity and fostering curiosity and the love of learning.
He compares this system to a hospital. Star teachers, like specialized surgeons, would be in demand and would come with a range of support personnel to perform tasks. Some might, for example, teach only fractions to elementary students, rather than, under the current system, a range of math skills to just one fourth grade class.
The fourth idea would be to change the relationship between schools and the rest of society. The idea here is to compensate for knowledge lost during the summer break or, in some cases, for poor learning environments in neighborhoods.
This may require governments to provide programs before and after school, and perhaps workshops for new parents in an effort to help kids prepare to begin school. His vision goes far beyond what some cities currently offer, involving a network of agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Finally, he suggests dissolving the school system entirely and giving students a more direct line to the ever-expanding world of knowledge.
Schools, he notes, are "frozen in time." They still hand out textbooks and use computers as electronic workbooks. Meanwhile, Google is creating a vast digital archive of knowledge and even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides free access to its lectures.
Learning has never been so exciting. Why not let kids pursue their natural interests, with adult supervision? Why not move away from committees that certify what children should read and learn?
Why not, indeed? In the end, Mehta acknowledges that big changes will be hard, given the reality of public school structures. I could add that parents, who often let emotions color their view of schools, tend to stand in the way of change, as well.
To be clear, I don't endorse any of these proposals. But they are not quick fixes, and they are radical. Those are essential ingredients for truly moving education forward in a new century.