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The Oxford American Education Forum

We asked academics, writers, education experts, journalists, and administrators: Without spending a single dollar, how can we improve education right now? Their responses follow.

Nicholas Lemann, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University

What matters most about education is what you choose to teach and how you choose to teach it. That seems almost axiomatic to me, so it's strange that so much of the intense ongoing debate about education ignores these topics and focuses instead on structural issues like teacher tenure, administrative control of schools, and class size.

The one cost-free idea I would propose is creating national standards for curriculum and pedagogy—the former based on informed consensus and the latter on rigorous research about which techniques work best. This wouldn't cost much, but it would be enormously controversial, because it seems to violate a cherished national tradition of local control of schools. But the truth is that there is very little local variation in education; instead, we have substantially ceded control of the crown jewels, curriculum and pedagogy, to a handful of national textbook publishers. It would be healthier to control these realms though the apparatus of American democracy.

Bruce S. Cooper, Fordham University Graduate School of Education

It's obvious—engage students and teachers, together, in setting the goals, curriculum, and methods for education. As our education systems become more nationalized and standardized, the two key groups—teachers and students—are overlooked. What about creating a student council, meeting with a committee of teachers to focus the curriculum, set the class expectations, and determine the standards? Sounds easy, but without teachers and their students involved, education reform will fall flat. And more money is not necessary since the students and teachers are already there and ready to collaborate!

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies, Harvard University

Schools should return to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic intensively, along with a lot of rote memorization of the world's best literature. It worked for my mother and father, and, to some extent, for me!


Susan B. Neuman, University of Michigan School of Education

I have two answers to this question. The first, based on the compelling evidence compiled by Richard Kahlenberg, would be to "economically integrate" schools. I've just finished writing a book on the implications of the increasing geographic concentration of poverty and affluence in our country, and how it has created a self-perpetuating cycle that leads poor kids to attend poor schools, receive poor services that have poor supports, creating a rigid social stratification system.

The second response is to immediately ensure that our poorest children have rigorous content-rich instruction and curriculum in colleague and I have documented the knowledge gap between poor and rich kids—typically poor students are receiving low-level remedial-style instruction which is mind-numbing—schools need to seriously increase not just standards, but the content of instruction, to support students' knowledge development and expertise.

Eric Hanushek, Hoover Institution of Stanford University

While the vast majority of teachers are hardworking and effective, a small portion are not. These ineffective teachers are significantly affecting achievement of U.S. students. Indeed, my analysis has suggested that U.S. achievement would climb to near the top of world rankings by replacing the bottom five to eight percent of teachers with just an average teacher. One immediate policy would be to release the lowest-quality teachers and let class size increase by one or two students. The savings from the larger classes could be used to pay severance pay for the poor performers, and any impact of the slightly larger class sizes would be much, much less than the improvements by eliminating the poor performers. A version of this recognizes that many districts have to lay off teachers because of current fiscal problems. If the lowest-quality teachers are laid off, achievement could increase noticeably while still dealing with the budgetary problems.

Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library

By supporting the attempt to create a Digital Public Library of America, you can make it possible for the cultural heritage of our country to be made available, free of charge, to everyone with access to the Internet-and it won't cost Congress a penny.

Rob Reich, Stanford University

Eliminate school-district boundaries. Starting tomorrow, offer parents and their children the opportunity to enroll in any public school, regardless of location, with admission to oversubscribed schools to be conducted by lottery. This will have three salutary effects. First, any child who wishes to attend a particular school will have a chance to gain admission. Second, no child will be forced to attend any particular school, for no child will be required by some zoning decision to enroll at the local neighborhood school. Third, this system will eliminate the unfairness that exists between wealthy parents who choose where to live based upon the quality of the public schools and poor families who do not have the privilege of exercising school choice. Family wealth will no longer be able to purchase access to high-quality public schools.

The legal significance of school-district boundaries is an unfortunate legacy of a terrible United States Supreme Court decision—Milliken v. Bradley (1974)—but it is nigh impossible to generate a case for the moral significance of school-district boundaries. We shouldn't pretend that the school-district boundaries are like natural facts about the world. This is a system we have created, and we can change it easily, and without spending a cent, to the benefit of many, many young people.

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University

Without spending a single dollar, education would be improved if Linda Darling-Hammond was made Secretary of Education. She is a wise, sane, intelligent, well-informed scholar who understands the needs of children, classrooms, and schools. She could use the bully pulpit as Secretary to support good education policy making at the state and federal levels. She could use her knowledge of education research and practice from around the world to inform the public and policy makers about what needs to be done to improve our schools. With her strong and articulate voice, she could stop the mindless attacks on the teaching profession. The leadership of someone like Darling-Hammond—someone with comparable wisdom, knowledge, vision and experience—would change the course of American education without spending a dollar.

Alfie Kohn, author of Feel-Bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children & Schooling

1. We can make our primary focus—and the chief criterion for judging the success of education policies and practices—the promotion of children's interest in learning. What matters isn't just what students learn but how strong their desire is to keep learning. Our focus shouldn't be only on how many skills they acquire but on whether they want to acquire still more. Educators pay lip service to this consideration—everyone is in favor of creating "lifelong learners"—but it rarely plays much of a role in driving what teachers do, or how researchers or policy makers evaluate proposed reforms. 

The effect of dedicating ourselves to sustaining and nourishing the desire to learn (which all children have when they begin school) would not only be intrinsically valuable but would have the benefit of improving the quality of their thinking: Students are more likely to do well at what they find interesting.

2. We can give students more say about what they're learning, and how, and when, and why. It costs nothing for educators to share some decision-making authority with their students. The bottom line is that kids learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Allowing students to participate in choosing what to read next, what to put on classroom walls, who sits where, and how their learning will be evaluated has social, moral, and intellectual benefits.

Peter Moskos, author of In Defense of Flogging

We need to teach basic grammar: subject, verb, object. I have college students who cannot write a complete sentence because they were never taught the basics of grammar. These students are not dumb, and they're very good at expressing themselves in other ways. But when students lack basic grammar skills, people assume they're stupid. It's not fair to them and it's not fair to us. Between social promotion, a misguided focus on standardized testing, and the idea that grammar is somehow old fashioned or out-of-date, we've forgotten how essential basic writing skills are. I'm all for creative thinking, self-expression, and learning what you love, but the benefits of a liberal-arts education are worthless if students graduate lacking the fundamental skills of literacy. Everything else—with the possible exception of arithmetic—pales in comparison.

Dana Goldstein, contributing writer, The Nation and The Daily Beast

I reject the facile idea that it's possible to overhaul public education without spending any more money. If we were a kinder society toward our children, we'd be spending significantly more on universal early child care, health care, and housing. However, a good place to start would be to take the billions of federal dollars that have been committed toward creating complex new systems to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student standardized-test scores, and instead spend the money on strategies that international research shows improve a teacher corps: rigorous year-long apprenticeships for prospective teachers, peer-mentorship programs for new teachers, and career ladders that reward successful teachers with more pay in return for writing curricula, evaluating their peers, and helping to craft local education policy. 

Bill Deresiewicz, contributing editor, The New Republic

Equalize per-pupil funding across every public school district in the country. That means taxing and funding at the federal level instead of the local one. (Local boards can still retain control over everything else.) No more rich and poor districts. No more using the educational system to reinforce the class system. Kids in the South Bronx get the same as kids in Larchmont, twelve miles away. If everybody gets the same, everybody has a stake in how much everybody gets.

Jess Row, fiction writer and critic, author of The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost

Abolish athletic scholarships, and expand Title IX to require that one hundred percent of net revenue from college athletics programs be invested in academic programs and financial aid. (This would be done via the threat of withholding federal funding.)

William Estrada, Home School Legal Defense Association

The fundamental principle of academic success that it seems education policy makers always forget is that education starts at home. Parental involvement is the key to educational success, whether a student is home schooled, private schooled, or public schooled. Parental involvement can't be forced; it occurs when parents realize they—and not policy makers in Washington—have the power to choose everything from their child's school to the curriculum that is taught in that school. It is crucial that parents have this power because every single child is different, and every single child learns differently. A one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to education will never yield academic success. Competition and flexibility must be the norm so that the people who know their child best—the parents—can choose the best educational model for their child.

Dr. Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch, National Center for Science Education

In the United States, there is a pervasive climate of ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward evolution—and it extends, unfortunately, to the classroom. Even now, almost ninety years after the Scopes trial, biology teachers are far too often not teaching evolution effectively, whether because they reject it themselves, or because they are experiencing pressure from their administration or their communities, or simply because they are not confident about their knowledge of and ability to teach the subject. In a recent national survey of public high-school biology teachers, only twenty-eight percent of the respondents were teaching evolution properly, as a central, unifying, and established principle of biology, while sixty percent were reluctant to do so, and thirteen percent were explicitly advocating creationism as a scientifically credible alternative to evolution. In short, there are too many biology teachers who won't, don't, or can't teach evolution properly: as a central, unifying, and established principle of biology.

Peter Thiel, founder of The Thiel Foundation

Dollars and credentials are both worth less than they used to be. Fortunately you don't need either to improve education. Without spending a single dollar, employers should stop requiring college degrees in hiring, thereby lowering the demand for college and also its cost. While many jobs require specific skills, knowledge, or talents, a B.A. doesn't guarantee any of these things. If government and other employers replace this requirement with more relevant measures, colleges could focus their efforts on providing skills and knowledge for specific careers.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, contributing blogger, The Chronicle of Higher Education

We must abolish tenure.

The first thing that tenure does is that it privileges research over teaching. Tenure is a static sort of promotion and rewards something you've already done—research. Teaching is a dynamic profession. As any good teacher will tell you, there is no resting on your laurels. But tenure doesn't provide much possibility for regular evaluation, which is necessary for good teaching.

Neal McCluskey, Associate Director of the Center for Educational Freedom, Cato Institute

It's easy, and it's hardly a new idea: Take the education money currently going to government schools and attach it to children. At the same time, give educators the freedom to teach what they want, when they want, how they want. In other words, go from a government monopoly in elementary and secondary education to freedom. The same freedom that we have in buying and producing computers, cars, groceries, garden hoses, magazines, kitchen knives, houses, shirts, bicycles, and on and on. Oh, and ballet lessons for our kids, yoga classes, and even doctorate degrees.

We simply don't need more money in education. We need more freedom.

Cynthia Shearer, Texas Christian University

First, we need ditch the "business model" for education, because it is only going to produce sociopaths. We need to get over the idea that public schools are for producing an obedient proletariat for Yalies to exploit when they become CEOs. We need to put up a big poster that says question authority next to every photo of a president in a classroom. We need to get over the idea that educations must be either liberal or conservative. Education needs to be based on teaching kids to be constantly curious and vigilant about what humanity thinks it knows. Revise the proverbial "3 R's" (readin,' writin', and 'rithemetic) to reading, writing, and reasoning. I would like to see a return to some of the "classical" (Greek) methods that train students to recognize various types of logical fallacies, incomplete or dishonest "evidence," and how to marshal the facts to support what it is they think they believe, how to recognize propaganda when they see it.

Tom Wolfe, author

That's easy. Leave the building and audit eight Roman Catholic parochial schools—they exist in every sort of neighborhood, high and low—and then go back home and run your school exactly, but exactly, the way they run theirs.*

*See Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? by Paul Attewell and David Lavin, p. 106 et passim.

Jay P. Greene, Department Head and 21st Century Chair in Education Reform, University of Arkansas

The most promising reform that doesn't cost a penny—in fact, it saves quite a bit of money—is to expand school choice. It doesn't have to cost anything because we can allow whatever money is currently spent on a child's education to follow him or her to a new school. Typically it saves money because the money that is provided to charters or voucher schools is significantly less than is spent on that child in traditional public schools. Expanding choice can save even more money if we allow schools to compete on the basis of price as well as quality. Programs like the Educational Savings Account in Arizona facilitate this by allowing families to save any amount from their voucher that is not spent on a school to be used for future educational expenses, including college. This puts downward pressure on costs.

Amber Holloway, recent graduate of Alabama School of Fine Arts, 2011 US Presidential Scholar

When we're young, we're tricked into learning. On dotted paper and with dotted lines, before we understand what we have conceived, a concept as complex as the English alphabet is grasped by the hungry, curious domains of our young minds.

For me, throughout the years, this system has not changed, only the medium, and perhaps, the subject matter. A system built not only on fact and incident, but on the wonder of the mechanics in our universe.

Unfortunately, this concept can only be communicated by people who see it as such. This is a constant. What most would call my education, I refer to as the vast realm that my mind has expanded into. My desire for knowledge and a cultivated perspective have been passed on to me by the teachers who come to work not for a paycheck, but because they are motivated by their passion to connect those dots and shapes, passionate about sparking the same excitement and adoration in others, those are the ones who create a fire in us that will never burn out.

Kent McGuire, President, Southern Education Foundation

While this will sound counterintuitive, we could improve education substantially by reducing our preoccupation with standardized tests. These tests, which chew up enormous time during the school year, are largely only useful to bring pressure to bear on the adults (teachers and administrators). The information gleaned from these tests comes too late and is way too general in nature to be helpful in classrooms. And to the extent that teachers feel compelled to prep students so that they do well on these exams, students miss out on acquiring deeper subject matter knowledge and developing broader skills. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences indicates that more than a decade of such testing has not increased student achievement—literally had no impact!

Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas

My three children were the first children of an Arkansas governor in 50 years who spent all of their time in grades 1–12 in the public schools of Arkansas, and they all graduated high school and eventually college. While they are similar in so many ways, they learned and processed information differently. However, the common thread between each child was the fact they received support from Janet and me and were held accountable for their grades and behavior.

The fastest way to improve education without spending a dollar is by getting parents more involved in their child's education. Statistics show a stable marriage and traditional family are instrumental in producing an educated workforce who will generate more total tax revenue than they consume. If we continue to spend money on the symptoms and refuse to address the root cause, then we can expect continued increases in under-educated children, poverty, and crime.

Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of Education and History, New York University

How will America prepare its next generation of teachers? That's a hugely urgent question, and thus far the answers come from two very divergent sources: education schools and "alternative" programs. The most forward-thinking education schools want to improve "practical" training—along the lines of a medical residency—while the alternative-certification crowd tries to recruit highly skilled people by promising them a way around education schools. And so the battle is joined.

But what if the two sides came together? I'm not talking about education schools providing add-on evening degrees for Teach For America volunteers. That already happens, and most TFA vets rate the experience as close to worthless. Instead, I would propose that a bold education school partner with TFA or another like-minded organization to take applicants in their junior year of college rather than their senior year. The applicants would commit to taking two to four education courses during their last college year and could then spend their post-graduation summer as full-fledged student teachers, instead of undergoing the quickie soup-to-nuts training that TFA and its cousins currently provide.

When I floated this idea in an op-ed piece last year, TFA advocates said that college students would never sign on if they had to devote a chunk of their final college year to the enterprise. But anyone who is unwilling to take a few extra classes in order to become a teacher probably shouldn't be a teacher in the first place. Meanwhile, education-school colleagues suggested that I had sold out, gone to the dark side, slept with the get the idea. The phrases speak volumes about our current impasse, and we'll need some new metaphors—think bridge, or olive branch, or peace pipe—to see our way out of it. Like it or not, education schools have lost their monopoly on the preparation of teachers. Better to partner with our challengers than to circle the wagons, which blinds us to everything outside of ourselves.

ABOVE ART: "School Daze" by Edmund Prior

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