During my high school years, I had the acquaintance of a fellow student – a person who still holds a strong presence in my memory. This person was one of the most ambitious, most determined individuals in the school; today she goes to one of America’s top universities. She may very well be the next president of the United States – and this is a serious statement.
One day this student asked me an interesting question: “What do you see me doing when I’m fifty years old?”
I teased, “I see you as a high school English teacher.”
She laughed, “I would kill myself if that happened.”
This simple sequence provides a powerful illustration on why America’s K-12 education system is so bad. The best and the brightest view teaching K-12 as a demeaning profession. Go to a class in Harvard, for instance, and ask what the students there want to do after they graduate. There will be lots of future investment bankers, lawyers, and politicians. There will probably very few K-12 teachers, if any at all.
In the countries with the world’s best education systems, places like Finland and Singapore, the conversation above makes no sense. Ambitious, talented people – like the classmate mentioned above – actually want to be teachers in Finland and Singapore. In America this isn’t the case.
This is a big reason why America’s public education system is so weak. A strong education system has good teachers. Logically, a country in which talented people want to be teachers will have good teachers. A country in which talented people belittle the K-12 teaching profession – say, a country like the United States – will probably not have good teachers.
The college system provides another example of this. In America being a professor is quite a desireable job; a lot of very intelligent people dream of teaching college students. Not coincidentially, America’s university system is the best in the world.
The great conundrum, then, is making the K-12 teaching profession desireable to people like the classmate mentioned above. In other words, one needs to change the culture. That is a very hard thing to do. Short of boosting teacher salaries to lawyer-like levels – something which will cost at least several hundred billion dollars, and which nobody is thinking about even in their wildest dreams – there is no easy solution in sight.
There is, of course, more to the problem of American public education than this. Education involves not just teachers, but students as well (indeed, students are actually more important than teachers). Even the best teachers cannot make gold out of students who just do not care for school. And, if one is honest, there probably is also something to the claim that American students are generally less motivated than students in, say, South Korea.