In an surprisingly agreeable discussion Thursday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system, discussed the current state and future of the American education system. Their consensus on several basic tenets of reform offers a shred of hope that this issue can be treated as a national imperative rather than a partisan debate. But the U.S. needs to get serious about addressing failures in our nation’s public schools. Too many of the problems we see in higher education today — unpreparedness, racial disparity and discrepancies in graduation rates — can be traced back to their roots in the shortcomings of K-12 education.
In a perfect society, university admissions would not be forced to choose between admitting a diverse class or accepting only students whose primary schools adequately prepared them for collegiate education. But it happens all the time, because inequity in the current U.S. education system far too often breaks down along socioeconomic and racial lines. Students who lack the requisite skills to succeed in college are graduating high school in droves. Illiteracy is rampant. Once this tragedy is set in motion, can we expect that institutions of higher education will be equipped to reverse it? Although improvements have been made, college graduation rates among underrepresented minorities remain comparatively low. Even at Cornell, amid efforts to combat such trends, recent six-year graduation rates for black and Hispanic students have been as much as 10 percent lower than for white and Asian students. This is symptomatic of a disease that begins in early education.
Public primary schools in the U.S. must be held accountable for the success or failure of their students. We agree with a fundamental concept Gov. Bush espoused during Thursday’s panel: Education must be reimagined to prioritize student needs above all others. Like any other social service or business model, education ought to be a consumer-driven industry. Although teachers should be afforded some job security, the tenure system in its present form removes performance-based incentive and allows inefficient educators to remain in the classroom — to the detriment of students. This is unacceptable. Replacing tenure with a flexible and compassionate system of evaluating student and teacher performance would allow schools to reward educators who excel at their jobs and eliminate those who fall short of minimum expectations. This employment model seems to work for nearly every other industry.
In addition to enforcing higher standards of K-12 education and promoting early literacy, we share Zimpher’s and Bush’s similar stance on options that should be available to high school graduates. All students should have the right to attend college, and none should be tracked at an early age to a path other than acquiring as much academic experience as they can. However, for those who are not qualified to pursue an advanced degree, or who intend to enter a career that does not require an advanced degree, it is a disservice to promote a “college or bust” mentality. We agree with Zimpher that the traditional broad liberal arts education should be available to all students who wish to undertake it. But we also support Bush’s advocacy of competency-based learning — the teaching of concrete, practical skills rather than abstract thinking — as an option that should be made more widely available.
Expanding choice is a component of reform that can immensely benefit students once they reach high school. But the only way to provide that choice is to ensure that children have access to the same minimum standards of education at every stage from kindergarten through graduation. When the time comes for students to choose a path, that decision should be based on individual ability — not pre-determined by the quality of education received up to that point.