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Rethinking education reform
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As budget crises deepen across the country, many fear that education funding could be put on the chopping block. If school budgets are reduced, will it be possible to get a high quality education in public schools?

The simple answer is yes. A high quality education might be priceless in today's economy. But it doesn't have to be overly expensive.

In this recession, nearly every state has cut services. And approximately three dozen states have slowed K-12 education spending. If we operate under the assumption that primary and secondary education have to be expensive to be good, we will be needlessly trading quality for austerity and thereby shortchange students.

What we need is targeted, low-cost reforms focused specifically on improving our teacher corps. The drive to save money is also an opportunity to make schools better and more efficient. Even in the lowest-spending districts, a passionate teacher with administrative support can change students' lives. Likewise, an apathetic teacher at the most luxurious institution will leave students cold.

And regardless of political affiliation, reformers generally agree that high-quality educators are essential to an excellent education. There are options available to move us in the right direction.

For starters, eliminate seniority-based employment practices. Although teachers unions like seniority systems, they have little to do with student achievement. For instance, a recent study found 36 percent of teachers fired in a Seattle district were more effective than the teachers whose jobs weren't at risk.

Firings, hirings, and promotions should be merit-based. We must focus on quality of instruction. The right approach will be some combination of student surveys, administrator in-class evaluations and performance on standardized tests.

Next, empower principals. Too often, they're restricted by employment policies insensitive to their particular school. Treat principals like CEOs by giving them freedom to customize teacher policies. Principals need access to data on student performance. And they must be able to select and evaluate their teachers and influence their salaries.

Running a school is similar to running a business - principals manage a diverse workforce, balance revenues and expenses, anticipate demand and make other businesslike decisions. Yet principals - and superintendents - know little about best management practices. Whether through MBA programs or custom-tailored courses, school leaders need a better business education.

Finally, expand technology in the classroom. Some public schools in New York City, Chicago, Virginia and California have already adopted iPads as teaching tools. Today's students have only known a world of fast, web-connected devices.

Classrooms have to evolve accordingly. Innovative online tools like the Khan Academy have been successfully integrated in some classrooms. These tools need wider use. Far from marginalizing teachers, they free teachers for one-on-one instruction.

Unfortunately, these promising reforms are often ignored by those who see the school crisis as simply a money problem. That thinking is off the mark.

In real dollars, between 1920 and 2008, spending per public school pupil jumped from under $1,000 to over $10,000. Adjusted for inflation, that's triple what it was 50 years ago.

Much of that influx has gone to teacher compensation. Since 1960, average public schoolteacher pay climbed, in real dollars, from $35,000 to $50,000 - a 42 percent increase. Yet reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been almost flat for four decades. And America still scores about 20 points below the international average in math and science.

There was a time when American students could underperform in school and still land a reasonably well-paid job. The rise of the hypercompetitive global economy changed that. Many of the current 49 million public school students will graduate - if they graduate - ill-equipped for the cognitive-heavy work comprising most of the American job market.

The future prosperity of our nation hinges on school reform. If policymakers strengthen our teacher corps, we'll save not only wasteful spending but also the shame of handicapping young Americans with a poor education.

We tried spending vast sums of money. Now, in today's budget environment, it's time to focus spending on more cost effective ways to provide an education to all students.

James Guthrie is a senior fellow and director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute and a professor of public policy and education at Southern Methodist University.