Our Sputnik Moment, Revisited: Hire the Best and Brightest!

"But if we want to win in the future . . . then we have to win the race to educate our kids."
Barack Obama - State of the Union Address - January 25, 2011

Last month Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the global PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results, and as most pundits expected, the results are not just bad -- they are horrible! Out of 34 OECD Countries, US students ranked 17th globally in science and in the secretary's words, "a lowly 25th in math" -- lower than Slovenia, Estonia and Hungary -- but still ahead of Kyrgyzstan.

The problems and recommendations are not new.

Let's start in 1983. In that year, an 18 member blue-ribbon panel delivered A Nation at Risk to Terrel Bell, Ronald Reagan's secretary of education. The first sentence in the findings begins, "We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies..." One of the many recommendations reads, "In light of the urgent need for improvement... we recommend the... teaching of math and science... with more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations" by teachers who "meet high educational standards... and demonstrate competence in an academic discipline."

Fast forward to 1994. The 103rd Congress passed Goals 2000: Educate America Act that promised, "By the year 2000, United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement." To support this goal, strategies were created to create "a highly talented work force of professional educators to teach challenging subject matter."

Skip to 2005. A 500+ page volume, known popularly as the Gathering Storm states the educational "concerns are particularly acute in K-12 education. In comparison with their peers in other countries, US students on average do worse on measures of mathematics and science performance the longer they are in school." It is not surprising that one of the recommendations contained in the report is "increasing the number of excellent teachers."

Moving on to 2010. The National Academies wrote Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited. The results and the recommendations should not be surprising. "Five years have passed since the initial report was prepared... and a great deal has not changed." To fix the problem we need to "move the United States K-12 education system in science and mathematics to a leading position by global standards."

I feel like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.

What is the cost of this low performance?
According to the OECD study that was delivered to the secretary along with the PISA results, moving into the top quarter to number eight could gain over $40 trillion -- yes trillion -- for the US economy for the generation born in 2010. Moving to the top of the pack -- to where Finland and South Korea are now -- could add over $100 trillion to the economy.

How do we fix this educational mess?
Everyone is looking for a silver bullet. Bill and Melinda Gates, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5-million-member American Federation of Teachers and a host of educational "officials," "bureaucrats" and "gurus" all have plans to fix America's schools. The Gates Foundation "is earmarking $500 million over the next decade to identify what teachers do when they teach well." Ms. Wiengarten touts "effective evaluation systems" that "can provide the feedback necessary to spur improvement." Others insist on higher salaries, pay for performance and smaller classes.

As much as I applaud these efforts -- and as a classroom teacher, I especially like more pay -- they are not going to fix the problem.

Over the next few years the United States will need to replace the 1 million baby boomer teachers who are retiring. On Tuesday the president upped the ante saying, "we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math," part of his goal of moving our nation to the top of the pack in math and science education.

At the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Conference last February Duncan said, "Teaching has never been more difficult, it has never been more important -- and the need for student success has never been so urgent. I am convinced that our ability to attract, and more importantly, retain, great talent over the next five years will shape public education for the next thirty years. It is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity." At Columbia University a few months earlier he said, "It's no surprise that studies repeatedly document that the single biggest influence on student academic growth is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom.

What we are doing now isn't working, so in the spirit of learning -- that's what education is all about -- let's take a lesson from those who have done it right.

Hire the Best and the Brightest
According to a recent McKinsey study, Finland and South Korea -- countries with the top performing math and science students -- recruit 100% of their new teachers from the top third of students. In the US, less than 25% of teachers are in that high performing group. In schools with high poverty, the number is less than 15%. But hiring top students to teach is only one part of the equation. High quality pre-service training, consistent mentoring early in a new teacher's career, and higher pay and higher status are also critical elements to hiring, developing and retaining these students.

There is obviously a large cost to implementing the change. The bulk of the cost would be increased teacher salaries -- the single biggest factor for attracting and retaining top graduates.

While the costs of improving the teacher pool may seem staggering -- especially in light of our currently weak economy -- politicians on both sides of the aisle should look at the long-term benefits of fixing the problem. According to the McKinsey study, the return for each dollar spent could be as much as twenty dollars and the gain in American GDP by closing the achievement gap is in line with the OECD estimates.

There will be naysayers. I accept the fact that not everyone at the top of his or her class can be successful in the classroom, but I think that the data from the McKinsey study -- along with a modicum of common sense -- would make a strong case to hire the best and the brightest. Hiring teachers like the ones who are retiring will not improve student performance.

While there is no quick fix -- it took Finland and South Korea over a decade to become the top performers -- if America does not start today in filling its teacher ranks with the best and brightest students, in 10 years we may find our students are behind those in Kyrgyzstan.

As President Obama said, this is our "Sputnik Moment." It may be our last chance to do it right.

Fred Belmont, a National Board Certified Teacher, is currently an Albert Einstein Distinguisher Educator Fellow in Washington, DC and is on leave from his seventh-grade math classroom at Wood Oaks Junior High School in Northbrook, Ill.