"We're in a war. Let's fight this like a war," said Craig Barrett, Intel's former chairman and CEO.
Each panelist at a 2011 Global Conference education session has confronted these issues head-on, from philanthropist Eli Broad and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Allan Golston and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
"The best educational systems in the world are achieving that status in large measure because their primary focus is on who is doing the educating and the environment in which they do it," said moderator Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation and the founder of TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement. "In your view, what steps must be taken to assure that U.S. students are competitive with students in the best-performing educational systems in the world?"
Most important to Barrett are making teachers content experts, supporting charters as a viable choice, absorbing state-driven internationally benchmarked common core curricula, implementing intelligent use of technology with good teachers, and getting the private sector more involved. Bush echoed Barrett's support for public choice, adding that private choice should also be an option. He also stressed the need for a more robust accountability model focused on improvement.
While America "being first in self-esteem" won't cut it, Broad said that "good things are happening." His six keys to improving education are lengthening the school day and year; broadening parental choice, either public or private; offering better teaching and compensation (which includes getting rid of Last In, First Out); creating thinner teacher contracts with greater flexibility; supporting online learning; and having better management.
Weingarten emphasized ensuring fairness throughout the reform process. She warned against thinking of teaching like speed-dating. "We need to show teachers what good teaching looks like and the steps to get them there," she said.
One initiative under way is the Measures of Effective Teaching project led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "We know a lot less than what we should" about improving teaching, said Golston, president of the foundation's U.S. Program. The project seeks to identify good teaching by gathering classroom data such as teacher and student surveys, student work, videotaped classroom lessons and teacher reflections on their practice. Other ways to improve education are setting higher expectations, supporting the common core initiative and supporting innovation, he said.
How can these reforms be implemented quickly? The panelists agreed that it all boils down to political will. Bush emphasized that the federal government has been a good partner in creating Race to the Top and other efforts, but it cannot fully drive reform at the local level. "The surge of new governors and superintendents has created environments I haven't seen in 20 years," Bush said. "Political will will be there if you can show improvement."