I was in high school when Sputnik happened. Russia’s lead in space frightened us. It also woke us up. President Kennedy issued a call to boost science and math education, to produce more engineers. His vision: Put a man on the moon. America, as always, rose to the occasion.
One could argue that there have been quite a few Sputniks lately, but that we haven’t noticed. Tom Friedman’s flat world is tilting toward Asia, taking investment and jobs. Of 120 new chemical plants worldwide with over $1 billion in capital, 50 are planned for China, only one for the United States. Bill Gates says Microsoft’s best new ideas are coming from his Asian team. And last year, America bought $160 billion more from China than China bought from us. America is still way ahead, but in the words of Will Rogers: “Even if you’re on the right track, if you don’t move, you’ll get run over.” It’s time we get moving, starting with education. First, close the Excellence Gap. American 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 OECD countries in math literacy and 19th in science. Fifteen years ago, the United States and Asia produced about the same number of Ph.D.’s in math and physical science: 4,700 a year. Today, we graduate 4,400; Asia graduates 24,900. Second, close the Achievement Gap. Failing urban schools are a dead end for too many minority children. This is the civil rights issue of our generation.
How to close the education gaps? The teacher’s unions have their answers: simply spend more money and hire more teachers for smaller classroom size. But the data show that those are not the answers at all. Massachusetts tests our kids regularly; when studentproficiencyis matched with classroom size and per-pupil spending, there is absolutely no relationship. In fact, the district with the highest per-pupil spending in our state — almost $19,000 per student — is in the bottom 10 percent of our state in student proficiency.
We found our education prescription by interviewing parents, teachers and principals, studying actual data, mining lessons from successful districts and charter schools, and digesting the recommendations from commissions and experts. Here are some of the real answers:
1) Make teaching a true profession. The 19th-century industrial labor-union model doesn’t make sense for educating children. Teachers aren’t manufacturing widgets. Better teachers should have better pay, advancement opportunities and mentoring responsibilities. Better pay should also accompany the most challenging assignments — needed specialties like math and science, advanced placement skills and extra effort.
2) Let the leaders lead. Superintendents and principals must have authority to hire, deploy resources, assign mentors and training, and remove nonperformers. Seniority cannot trump the needs of our children.
3) Measure up. Over union objections, Massachusetts implemented standardized testing and a mandatory graduation exam. With measurement, we finally see our successes and failures and can take corrective action. Without measurement, we were blind.
4) Let freedom ring. When parents, teachers and kids are free to choose their school, everyone benefits. Charter schools free of union restraints and, yes, even home schools, teach lessons we can apply to improve standard public schools.
5) Pull in the parents. Teachers tell us that the best predictor of student success is parental involvement. For our lowest-performing schools, I’ve proposed mandatory parental preparation courses. Over two days, parents learn about America’s education culture, homework, school discipline, available after-school programs, what TV is harmful or helpful and so on. And for parents who don’t speak English, help them understand why their child’s English immersion in school is a key to a bright future.
6) Raise the bar. Our kids need to be pushed harder. Less about self-esteem; more about learning. I have proposed advanced math and science schools for the very brightest (the one we have is a huge success, but we need more); advanced placement in every high school, more teachers with serious science and math credentials, and laptop computers for every middle- and high-school student. We’ve also added science as a graduation exam requirement, in addition to math and English.
These ideas should sound familiar — they turn up in virtually every unbiased look at education. The opposition comes from some teachers unions. They fight better pay for better teachers, principal authority, testing and standards, school choice and English immersion. With their focus on themselves and their members, they have failed to see how we have failed our children. But that will change as testing produces data and data debunks the myth that more and more spending is the answer.
A continuing failure to close the excellence and achievement gaps would have catastrophic consequences, for individual human lives left short of their potential, and for our nation. Students around the world are racing ahead of ours. If we don’t move, we’ll become the France of the 21st century, starting as a superpower and exiting as something far less. Education must be one of our first priorities, as it was when Sputnik was launched the last time. We succeeded before. We will do it again.
Mitt Romney is governor of Massachusetts.