The Way Forward on Education

She was the youngest woman in history to be elected to Florida's legislature, and since 2011 Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been the Chair of the Democratic Party. Throughout her career in public service she has made improving our education system a top priority. In her new book, For the Next Generation, Wasserman Schultz offers ideas for how we can structure an incentive system that rewards teachers without mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to education.


Once a child is enrolled in school, parents have every right to worry about whether the teachers are fully committed to their job shaping the minds of children. But parents must be careful not to be so antagonistic or confrontational that they chase away talented educators. For parents who were upset to learn that their child attended a "failing school," as defined by No Child Left Behind policies, it's worth asking whether it's fair to judge a teacher purely on the basis of how his or her students perform on a single high-stakes exam. You just can't compare the task of teaching students at a public school in an affluent suburb with teaching students at a low-income inner-city school. Poverty presents challenges such as hunger, inadequate housing, higher crime rates, and the need to work while in school. Some students may have to grapple with domestic violence, or with parents who work three part-time jobs. This kind of environment is distracting for children who need to come to school ready to learn.

According to the No Child Left Behind law, the teacher in that poor neighborhood would be denied "merit pay" based on those students' performance--which is sure to discourage talented teachers from taking a job at such a troubled school in the first place. Additionally, the school earns a lower overall grade or doesn't make "adequate yearly progress," which affects the school's funding and future. A lower school grade also has an effect beyond the school doors, often lowering property values nearby, as potential homebuyers want their children to attend successful schools.

In my own experience with the education system, I have seen the consequences of relying on high-stakes exams. My son, Jake, was sick on the day in seventh grade when he was to take the reading portion of the FCAT, and we didn't think it was possible to take it another day. As a result, he did poorly on the test, despite having earned As and Bs in language arts classes in the gifted student program in school. Certainly, Jake's performance wasn't his teachers' fault. It was a one-shot chance for him on that day and as a result of the lower score, we discovered the next school year that the state legislature had passed a law requiring, with no exceptions, every student with a below-average FCAT score to take a remedial reading class. Jake clearly did not need remedial reading, but the one-size-fits-all, no exceptions approach that No Child Left Behind and state education accountability programs take don't allow a student's individual needs to be considered. As an involved parent, I did some homework and was able to enroll Jake in our school district's online high school to fulfill his reading course requirement. This was an enrichment, rather than a remedial course. But I discovered this doing my own research. If I had just accepted what I was told by the school, Jake would have missed the chance to take an elective course at his school and wasted a period for an entire school year in a course he did not need, to say nothing of the potential stigma he would have endured walking into a class every day that wasn't necessary. Jake was healthy on the day of the reading FCAT in 2013 and earned the highest achievable score, underscoring that the one-size-fits-all reading requirement was pointless.

It is not an easy job, but most teachers have such a strong belief in the value of education that they are willing to devote their working lives to it. I admire programs like Teach for America, which recruits highly skilled people from a variety of backgrounds, often right out of college, then asks them to make a two-year commitment to teach in a disadvantaged area. This is a way to attract instructors who have pride in their work and who enjoy a challenge.

I'd like to see us find more ways for communities--both in low- and middle-income neighborhoods--to reward their teachers, elevating the perception of the profession and making it more attractive to excellent students. Those teachers' successes will also give parents faith that their kids are receiving a quality education in a public school.

If we strive to understand the challenges that teachers face and empower them to improve flawed policy, we will get so much more from our investment in their salaries. Forcing teachers to compete against one another for better scores on a standardized test is not the way to improve education, nor is busting the union that ensures teachers have a living wage and decent work conditions. Treating our nation's teachers in the same way we treat our doctors, lawyers, and other professionals is essential to upgrading the quality performance of a profession critical for America's future in the development of the next generation.

We should encourage teachers to collaborate with their colleagues. Finland, which has a world-class education system and a strong union presence, cites the spirit of teamwork that pervades their public schools, making instructors more passionate about their work and giving prestige to the teaching profession, which in turn attracts talented individuals.

Emulating Finland's schools might lead to hysterical conservatives decrying a "socialist" agenda. But we can stay on this side of the Atlantic to copy American models, like those in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Toledo, Ohio, where teachers have a rigorous system of peer evaluation and review. After all, the teacher who stands to inherit a class of students from the grade below has every reason to make sure the previous grade's teacher is doing a good job. If merit pay is an important principle, then let every teacher share equally in the success of their school. This way, teachers would have even more reason to swap secrets of their trade in the faculty lounge, as well as weed out the worst teachers among them.

Excerpted from For The Next Generation, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz