Charles Chieppo is a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School.E-mail: Charlie_Chieppo@hks.harvard.edu
Economic success depends on a well-educated workforce. So it makes sense to think of improving education as a tool for boosting a region's economy.
Detroit, ground zero of the worst economic meltdown in memory, understands this. "We've been stating unequivocally all year that we have significant academic challenges and that the financial emergency is completely linked to the academic one," Detroit school spokesman Steve Wasko told the Detroit Free Press. Of the 108 lowest performing schools in Michigan, 47 were in Detroit.
Detroit's low-performing schools will be eligible for newly announced federal assistance. The question remains, will spending more on a dysfunctional system improve it? What aspect of public education is most in need of a new approach?
One word: Teachers.
"From the moment students enter a school," President Obama said in his first major education address since taking office, "the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents; it's the person standing at the front of the classroom."
Research shows that he's right. But according to 2008 data from the College Board, students intending to pursue undergraduate education majors have lower SAT scores than those in all but one field generally associated with four-year degrees.
It doesn't get any better in graduate school. Graduate Record Examination results for those seeking to enter education programs are well below average. Among those seeking admission to grad schools, the lowest scores come from undergraduate education majors.
Many teachers still excel. But up to half of all new teachers leave the field within five years.
It's not only parents who should care about teacher quality. Notwithstanding the recent success of Massachusetts and Minnesota students on one leading test, Americans regularly underperform their international peers on math and science assessments.
Educational excellence drives economic performance. A McKinsey & Company report found that if we had closed the global performance gap by 2000 -- a goal set by the first President Bush and reiterated by President Clinton -- the resulting increase in gross domestic product by 2015 would have been enough to fund all current U.S. education expenditures.
President Obama says it's time to reward teachers who improve student achievement with higher pay and to stop making excuses for bad ones. Student assessment data now makes it possible to objectively link compensation to performance by following a cohort of students for several years and comparing their achievement gains under different teachers. Tying teacher compensation to student performance is one of the criteria used to determine which states will get federal funds under the administration's Race to the Top grant competition.
But some say pay for performance would result in friction among teachers, not better teaching. They argue that the solution is to pay all teachers more. Nationally, wages have not kept up with inflation in recent years.
Data also suggest that teachers aren't entirely immune from human nature. Another study, this one out of the University of Wisconsin, found that as prospective salary increased, so did the number of college sophomores and juniors intending to major in math and science -- skills desperately needed in the classroom -- who said they would consider teaching.
Improving teacher quality is arguably the nation's biggest public education issue. Successfully meeting the challenge would not only benefit millions of students, it would also provide a sagging economy with real and lasting stimulus.