Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Everyone talks about the decline of American education, but very few innovative ideas have emerged and been implemented in recent decades. Much of what is taught today is pap--material lacking real value or substance. Sure there are some great teachers still out there, and some kids who are moved to greatness by what those teachers do. But the numbers are seriously declining. When I was a schoolchild, almost any student could name one teacher they really admired, looked up to, and learned a lot from. Today that isn't easily found.

When prison guards in California make an average of over $100,000 a year with no skills or education beyond high school, and teachers make about $60,000, the trend is clear in what our current society values. Of course, with more good teachers, the prisons would not be filled to overflowing. More Americans are in prison today, 1 in 100, than in any other country. China is a distant second with 1 in 1000 Chinese in prison.

When you listen to some of the stuff coming out of political candidates' mouths today, you can clearly see that they are less well-educated and well-read than those of a generation or two ago. Of course, they are speaking to an equally dumbed-down electorate, so perhaps it all works to their advantage.

I don't think it's going to be very easy for government, local or national, to change the status of teachers. But there was a time when it was considered a prestigious, honorable profession.
This can happen again with the help of the private sector, which would be the beneficiary of an upgrade in teachers, schools, and students. My suggestion is a merit award for teachers beyond any yet tried. If some of the billionaires who are now so committed to help cure Malaria and other diseases overseas, would put some of that same energy and capital into the U.S. education system, I think we could see dramatic changes. We could start with a series of grants to exceptional teachers, perhaps styled after the MacArthur Foundation genius grants.

The criteria would be that the person had to be selected by students as being a wonderful, inspiring influence. And referees would sit in that teacher's class for some hours to determine if this was truly a fantastic teacher. I think a $200,000 figure split between the teacher and the school would have a big impact. And not just a handful of these grants, but dozens in every state. This would be a strong incentive for truly gifted students to consider teaching as a career choice once again. Expensive? Yes, but well worth it. And it could be financed just by Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Ted Turner and perhaps a few other big and very rich givers.

Would it solve all the problems? No, not by a long shot. But it would get the conversation going, and definitely inspire some new, creative ways to make the great leap forward our entire education system needs.

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