Revolutionize education

The US charter school model could transform our school system from being input-based to performance-based.

kids at school 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kids at school 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Following his address at the Herzliya Conference, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu was asked to explain what he would do to fix Israel's public education system. Although he was quick to say teachers deserve to be paid more, he insisted that fixing education is not fundamentally about putting more money into the system. Indeed, he referred to many countries around the world that have seen student performance drop in direct proportion to increased educational spending. Fixing Israeli public education is, Netanyahu said, about raising the level of teacher preparation and ongoing professional development, giving principals ownership of their schools, including the ability to hire good teachers and fire bad ones, giving students ample time to focus on core subjects, and providing an underlying set of Torah and Zionist values for all students. ALL OF THESE are good ideas. Yes, many kids can go only as far as their teachers will take them, and their teachers will take them only as far as they themselves are able. Yes, every principal should have the same authority given to any non-profit leader or for-profit CEO, beginning with the power to put the right people on the bus. Yes, the curriculum needs to offer students breadth and depth in mathematics, science and technology. And yes, the values and history of the Jewish people should be transmitted to all Israeli children, regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents. But all these reforms are predicated on the notion that the schools built for the industrial age are suited to preparing today's children for the global knowledge economy. They all assume that more of the current teacher preparation, more ownership by the current principals, more time using current curricular materials, and more values superimposed on what is currently in place will lead to better results. In fact, it is quite likely that a global knowledge economy requires judgment, creativity, critical thinking, teamwork and resourcefulness, as well as competence in core curricular areas. It is quite likely that the revolution needed in public education requires not perfecting a broken system but freeing up visionary educators to imagine and implement new models. TO PREPARE a generation of children to compete in the global knowledge economy, we need to create a market for the producers of education so that our children get to learn in schools that embody the entrepreneurial spirit and habits of the new economy. The charter school laws in the US have made it possible for some of America's best and brightest individuals and some of its most innovative private institutions to put their creativity to work on behalf of the nation's toughest kids. Charter schools are based on a simple contract: autonomy in exchange for accountability. A charter school gets public funds to innovate; such schools continue to receive public funds only so long as their students are performing on state-mandated measures. Because charter schools must perform to stay in business, they are not only teaching students to learn, but the best of them operate as nimble learning organizations, using data to continually improve their service to their students. Begun in the 1990s as an educational movement on the fringe, a little over a decade later, US charter schools provide competition to the system, replace failing schools, spread innovation and attract people who might otherwise have gone into hi-tech, law or business to earn a good living teaching the young. Education reform requires an educational renaissance whose core outcomes can be dictated by the government, but whose execution is driven by the creativity and sweat of entrepreneurial educators. There should be one set of minimum standards for all graduates, but many kinds of schools helping many kinds of kids achieve them. ISRAEL IS a small enough country for a few exceptional model schools to become incubators of educational best practices, which, with the right support, could scale nationally. Israel is a country bursting with educational pioneers - idealistic educators of exceptional talent and soul - who could be enlisted, and paid a premium, to create innovative schools in areas poorly served by the government bureaucracy. And, since charter schools in the US have been flourishing for over a decade, Israel would not have to reinvent the wheel to get started. Reforming an input-based educational system - where teachers continue to teach regardless of how well their students perform, and where students are promoted no matter how little they learn - into an outcome-based system, where schools are accountable for student performance and students graduate able to compete in a global knowledge economy, is no less daunting a task than turning a Soviet-style economy into a market-based one. The shift requires the breaking of the bureaucracy's monopoly on public education, combined with clear standards of what the nation expects its citizens to know and be able to do. Inviting innovation and expecting results are the keys to making this happen. Will the desert of Israeli public education be allowed to bloom? Our economy has already been revolutionized. Does Israel have a leader who has what it takes to do the same for our nation's public schools? The writer is the mother of two Israeli public school students and the founded one of America's first charter public high schools.