By far the largest and most important task performed by government in America is public education. Yet teachers, parents, the president, and his secretary of education are all intuitively aware that our system is, by and large, a failure.
The problem is not money. We're spending 700 percent more per pupil than we were 50 years ago—and that's in inflation-adjusted dollars! Twelfth graders' scores in math, science, and reading have been flat for 30 years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and large gaps persist between whites and African-Americans and whites and Hispanics.
It's not time spent in school. The longer children stay in our schools, the worse they seem to perform when compared with similar pupils in rich countries.
It's not teacher pay. Teachers are not severely underpaid when you take into account that they work only nine months a year; certainly they're not short-changed at all when compared with workers of similar skill levels and similar professions. Indeed, the people drawn into teaching tend to be those who have performed in the bottom third of their college classes. High performers tend to stay away from teaching, in part because they think there is no merit pay: In other jobs, they can earn more money through better performance or by voluntarily putting in longer hours.
How can we break the history of failure? Americans at every level want to. They understand that a good high school education is critical to a college degree and that a college degree is the single most important factor affecting a young person's chances of success.
Research indicates one big answer: better teachers. It is not the color of the students' skin or where they come from; it's not the size or ethnicity of their classes or the level of parental participation; it is the teacher who is the defining factor of great education. It all happens in the classroom. There is only half as much variation in students' achievement between schools as there is across classrooms in the same school, a manifestation of differences in the quality of teaching. Children with a very good teacher will learn, on average, one and a half years of material in a school year; those with a bad teacher will learn only half a year's worth of material. It is better to have a good teacher in a bad school than a bad teacher in a good school.
What makes a great teacher? We have no conclusive understanding. Some of the characteristics are intangible. But we are going to have to recognize the good ones when we see them, and we are also going to have to find a way to help average teachers become great teachers.
Technology holds promise. Through the electronic miracles of the Internet and video, we can have the best teachers in each subject teaching in different schools but within the same school system. I have just witnessed this experiment in New York City in a school where lectures by great teachers were beamed in from another school. They are able to inspire the remote students to respond on subjects as varied as immunology, public health, and geometry. The technology is not just a destroyer of distance. It is force multiplier of talent: More pupils will learn more, more students will do well and maybe come back to teach, and more teachers will see how it is done. (After all, this is the way surgeons are taught: by observing the experts at work.)
Technology is starting to demonstrate the power to change teaching. We are slowly developing the software to put great teaching online and on DVDs. The Kauffman Foundation is nearly ready to launch an innovative interactive teaching course for colleges (the subject, fittingly, is the very innovations that gave us our modern world). As we develop more teaching software, hundreds of thousands of students can be with a great historian on an explanatory walk through the sites of the Battles of Gettysburg and Waterloo, or watch an aeronautics engineer use a wind tunnel to calculate the best shapes for the wings of a new aircraft.