Former IBM chief’s education reform ideas


Former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner had an interesting piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, in which he suggests a handful of education reform options:

“- Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some
states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service
organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the
critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and
developing curricula.

Establish a set of national standards for a core curriculum. I would suggest we start with four subjects: reading, math, science and social studies.

Establish a National Skills Day on which every third, sixth,
ninth and 12th-grader would be tested against the national standards.
Results would be published nationwide for every school in America.

Establish national standards for teacher certification and require regular re-evaluations of teacher skills. Increase
teacher compensation to permit the best teachers (as measured by
advances in student learning) to earn well in excess of $100,000 per
year, and allow school leaders to remove underperforming teachers.

Extend the school day and the school year to effectively add 20 more days of schooling for all K-12 students.

This is an interesting mix of approaches, some more promising than others. The idea that the state can run schools more efficiently than smaller districts can is questionable, to say the least. I can’t think of anything the state does efficiently. I expect national standards to get a big push, though – it is popular on both sides of the aisle. Why? Because it is clear that the Feds made a mistake in allowing each state to set their own achievement benchmarks.  As a result, there is enormous variation from state to state with regard to what constitutes “proficiency” in reading, for example. National testing will likely follow national standards. The NAEP test, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, is generally seen as an effective national test, against which many states benchmark their own state tests.  Extending the school day and year makes sense – we trail many nations in the amount of schooling we ask kids to do – but only if the schools become more effective at what they do. Having kids spend more time in bad schools makes no sense at all.

Gerstner’s fourth suggestion, related to teacher quality, is, in my mind, the key piece.  None of the rest of it matters if you do not have top-quality teachers in the classroom. It is also the most controversial piece of the puzzle, as it would require the recently-elected Obama administration to take on the recalcitrant teachers’ unions, who are reflexively resistant to any attempt to tie teacher pay to student outcomes, or to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers.  Whether President-Elect Obama is willing to move forward on teacher quality issues in defiance of the unions will determine the extent to which he is serious about making the kind of profound changes to our schools that leaders like Gerstner are suggesting.

Who he selects as an Education Secretary may tell us a great deal about the answer to that very question.