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How to Fix the Schools (abridged)

By Marty Nemko

Imagine that Michael is your son. He’s entering the 9th grade but is reading on a 7th grade level. He complains that school is hard and boring. He refuses to do most of his homework. He is starting to make bad friends.

You now hear about the latest school reforms: he will now be in classes with the school’s top students as well as its weakest ones. Standards will be ratcheted up so all students will be required to take a full college-preparatory course schedule, and each of those courses will be more demanding than ever before. Three hours of nightly homework will be the expectation. Even if class size is reduced, will such school reform likely help or hurt your Michael?

Michael, except for the name, is a real kid. He’s the child I’ve been mentoring for the past five years. And I’m worried as hell about what school reform is doing to him.

Here’s a blueprint for school reform that I believe is more likely to help Michael, indeed all children.

Better Teachers

It’s ever more difficult to attract and retain good teachers. Before the women's movement, many of the best and brightest females saw teaching as the most ambitious career to which they could reasonably aspire. Today, however, we don't blink twice at a woman executive, doctor, or lawyer. Indeed, 49% of the law school class of 2004 is female. As a result, the quality of K-12 teachers has severely declined. We must reinvent the way we recruit, train, and retain teachers.

Recruiting Better Teachers

We can attract better teachers by improving teacher prestige, pay, and impact.

Prestige: Teaching would be more prestigious if we added a career ladder for teachers: teacher, senior teacher, master teacher.

Pay: Even if teachers’ per-hour pay remained the same, if teachers worked an eight-hour day and 220-day year, teachers would earn $70-100K, enough to eliminate low pay as a reason to eschew a teaching career. That pay structure would also discourage the many people who are attracted to teaching primarily because of the short hours and summers off. Requiring teachers to work a longer workday and work year would also benefit students—more time on task does bring about more learning.

Impact: Would teachers be more likely to stay in teaching if classes were grouped by achievement rather than the current hodgepodge, and if teachers regained more power to place too-difficult-to-teach students into special classes?

Reinventing Teacher Training

It is difficult to imagine why university professors rather than K-12 master teachers are the designated trainers of K-12 teachers. Most university professors are researchers, rarely master K-12 teachers. Many have never taught K-12 at all. And because so many professors are hyperintellectual, enjoy esoterica, and are more comfortable with data than with children, there’s particular reason to doubt that they are the best people to train K-12 teachers.

University-based teacher training programs have no such incentive. Their main incentive is to fill its seats. No matter how weak the teachers they turn out, the university suffers little negative consequence. The incentives are all for quantity, not quality.

The following approach to training teachers would seem to make more sense. Each school district should recruit bachelor’s degree holders for a teacher training program taught primarily by the district's best teachers. Each trainee would spend a few weeks in each of those teachers' classrooms, and after school, debrief with those teachers. The district would supplement that practicum with methods and theory courses, the latter perhaps taught by university professors.

The school district, after certifying the new teacher, would have to hire that teacher. That provides a strong incentive for the district to ensure good screening and training of candidates.

Even if the above recommendations were in place, to attract enough good teachers as a result, we must stop acting like educators—who usually disdain marketing. We must undertake a marketing campaign about “The New and Improved Teaching Profession” aimed at top high schoolers, college students, and mid-career professionals. If the Army’s “be all you can be” campaign could convince people to spend years in the muck while risking having their heads blown off, marketing “The New and Improved Teaching Profession” should attract sufficient numbers of our best and brightest into teaching.

Better Curriculum

Think back to the last class or workshop you attended. How much do you remember? If you’re like most people, not much. And that was when you were an adult, you chose the class, and perhaps paid for it.

Now imagine school kids, especially the millions of unmotivated ones like Michael. They must endure class after class on topics they never would have chosen: European history in the 4th grade, pre-algebra in the 8th, or chemistry in the 11th. And each class is no mere one-hour workshop; it’s a 180-hour marathon. And kids have shorter attention span than adults. It’s little wonder they forget, let alone fail to incorporate into their lives, most of what they were taught.

Children have so much curiosity, so much energy. Yet most schools, even most well-funded suburban schools, have long managed to leach the life out of so many kids. One parent wrote, “I waved good-bye to my bright-eyed kindergartner. Now I say hello to a dulled fourth grader.”

And by high school, the dulling usually accelerates: geometric theorems, the causes of the War of 1812, the periodic table, the subjunctive tense, fat textbook after fat textbook—material that could deaden the most vibrant teen, let alone Michael. If you ask teenagers—suburban, urban, or rural--what they think of school, their most frequent responses: “boring” and “Why I need to know that stuff?”.

This is especially devastating to the millions of slow learners like Michael. By definition, they’re going to leave high school knowing relatively little. That makes it crucial that what they do learn be as important as possible. Until every student has acquired the basic life skills, it is elitist of us to insist that they understand non-linear functions, the electron structure of the elements in the Periodic Table, the pre- and post-Columbian explorers’ voyages, etc., etc., etc.

Lest you think I exaggerate, here’s an example of the state of New York’s objectives for all its students: “Students relate processes at the system level to the cellular level in order to explain dynamic equilibrium in multi-celled organisms.” Let’s cross the country. Here’s a sample item from the exam that every high school student in California will be required to pass: “What is the prime factored form for the lowest common denominator of 2/9 + 7/12.” That was an item rated as of average difficulty! Could you answer it? In your entire life have you ever needed to know this? Even if you’re a scientist, you probably will never need to know that.

Forcing all kids, even slow learners, to know such things—even if they graduate without decent reading, writing, and arithmetic skills--is what we’re endorsing whenever we nod in agreement when some educrat or politician calls for “high standards for all students.” Is that what you would want for Michael?

Why do we continue to teach the things that even good students usually forget the day after the test? Mainly it’s tradition—schools change at glacial speed. But it’s also because curriculum is developed by scholarly Ph.D.s who value their discipline so much that they insist that every bit of arcana is indispensable. And because we would hate to appear as though we were defending low standards, we accept the scholars’ recommendations.

What to Do?

We must ask ourselves: What are the most important things kids need to learn? We must teach those first. Reading, sure. Number sense, yes. Writing, of course. How to use a computer. Sure. Interpersonal communication skills, absolutely.

What might a reinvented high school curriculum look like?

Roughly ¼ of traditionally required high school courses would become elective, replaced by required life-skills courses as follows:

English/Language Arts

Of the four-years of high school English, roughly three are currently devoted to the study of literature. One year of that literature work would be replaced by this course:

Language for Life. Using common real-life situations, this course would develop students’ ability to make logical and well-presented arguments orally and in writing. The course would also focus on enhancing reading of crucial material such as newspapers and magazines, voter handbooks, consumer contracts, employee and product assembly manuals, and how-to books.

Students entering 9th grade would be able to test out of this course and in its stead take a more advanced course in research, rhetoric, and in written and oral persuasive communication. Debating, mediation, and brainstorming sessions would be often used as vehicles for teaching these skills.


One year of the typically-taken four years of history/government would be replaced by:

Psychology for Life. Using common real-life situations and extensive use of role-playing, this course would help students develop new understanding and skills in such areas as conflict resolution, coping with anxieties, teasing/cliquishness, drug abuse, and sexuality.


One year of the typically-taken four years of college-preparatory math (algebra, geometry, algebra 2/trigonometry and precalculus) would be replaced by:

Math for Life. Many students graduate from high school able to solve the problems in the Algebra 2 textbook yet unable to deal with more common real-world math problems, for example, to address the question, “Can I afford to buy a home?” This requires an understanding of how to set up that problem, calculate likely mortgage payments, estimate likely income (after taxes) over at least the first few years of home ownership, etc. The Math for Life course would use common real-life scenarios to teach crucial math understandings that are lacking in a surprising number of high school and even college graduates.

Students entering 9th grade would be able to test out of this course and in its stead, take a more advanced math course.


One year of the typically-taken four years of science would be replaced by this course:

Information Literacy. The information explosion provides tremendous power to those who can harness it. This course would show students how to optimally use the Internet, libraries, and interviewing to obtain desired information.

Foreign Language

One year of the typically-taken three years of foreign language would be replaced by:

Career Exploration. Even after college, many people graduate unsure of what they want to be when they grow up. Part of the reason is that they are aware of only a small fraction of the thousands of career options available. Even fewer people have a good sense of what career would best suit them. It normally takes years to identify a well-suited career. High school is the time to begin the career exploration process. This course would not attempt to pigeonhole students into a career. It would expose them to a wide range of options, use various methods to identify each student’s strengths, weaknesses, values, and interests, and show them how to discover what careers might fit them. Non-college-bound students would be exposed to quality non-dead-end careers not requiring a college education.

Create a National Curriculum

Imagine what would be possible with a national curriculum. For every major concept, K-12, there could be a superlative lesson plan. Consider the classic frog dissection lesson. Instead of killing millions of frogs, a high-quality interactive video-based course (too expensive to develop locally, but affordable nationally), distributed on the Internet, would allow students to simulate the frog dissection. Click on an icon and you get a mini-lecture or demonstration by a nationally renowned teacher. A lesson plan would be included for the in-classroom teacher, including stimulating questions, group activities, and homework assignments. Why should 70,000 biology teachers each have to try to figure out a wonderful way to teach the frog dissection lesson, not to mention bring in and then kill 30 frogs per period?

An additional benefit of a national curriculum: The nation is wringing its hands about the lack of minority teachers to serve as role models. There certainly would be no difficulty finding a few outstanding minorities to do the pre-recorded mini-lectures and demonstrations for these online classes.

Now think about the entire biology (or English, history, whatever) course. A similar course could be developed for each of those.

Importantly, this approach would allow for a degree of individualization impossible without a computer. Students could proceed at their own pace, getting more or less help as they need it. This would be invaluable for Michael.

The cost of developing master-taught courses locally is prohibitive, but not if there were a national curriculum, with course development funded by the government or public/private partnership and created by the best curriculum developers.

What would the hundreds of thousands of live teachers do if online master teachers were doing the teaching? They would do what they do best: provide the human touch: answering questions, working one-on-one with kids, and developing the close relationships with students that most of us wish we had but few teachers have time to provide.

When we think about what we remember most fondly about school, it’s usually relationships. We must give teachers the time to build one-on-one relationships with students. I predict that if we freed teachers to do that, teachers would enjoy their jobs more, kids, especially those like Michael, would feel more connected to their teachers and to their school, and the schools would get a badly needed injection of a crucial ingredient in the best environments: love.

Commonality-centered, not ethnicity-centered curriculum

Today’s curriculum tends to divide people. It encourages students to self-identify more by their ethnicity than by their commonalities as fellow human beings. Conventional wisdom still is that by teaching kids to celebrate their ethnicity, we increase the self-esteem of people of color and we all will come to value diversity. Unfortunately, we are learning that when groups identify themselves primarily by their differences rather than by their commonalities, severe problems occur, witness the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Albanians and Serbs, Hutus and Tutsis, for example.

One way to assess the success of schools’ current efforts to encourage interracial relations is to observe whom students choose to sit with in the student cafeteria. Walk into the cafeteria in most racially diverse high schools, and you’ll mainly see students eating with students of their own race.

Berkeley (California) High School makes particular efforts to encourage students to take pride in their ethnicity, A PBS TV special on Berkeley High documented how the students had so balkanized that not only do most students self-segregate in the cafeteria, each ethnic group has staked out and named its own turf on the schoolyard: Africa, Little Mexico, Asia, etc. Interracial fights are frequent.

What to Do? In our schools and in the media, it would seem that we should focus less on our separate group identities and more on our commonalties as humans on the planet. We should emphasize our obligations to contribute not to "our community" but to the world we all share. If we are to slow our descent into separate ethnic enclaves, each with its "what's in it for us" philosophy, we need less pluribus and more unum.

Better Structure

Reforming school structure isn’t sexy but it’s one of the most certain ways to improve student learning.

Increase Time on Task

The research shows, and it’s only common sense, that the more time spent learning, the more that students will learn. Yet the average school year in the US is 179 days. Compare that with England: 192 days. Canada: 195. Russia: 208. Germany: 240. Japan: 243. China: 248. That means that American kids spend 26 weeks a year in school compared with, for example, 35 weeks in Japan. With a difference like that, it would be a miracle if Japanese kids didn’t outscore US kids. There’s no miracle.

Now let's look at the length of the school day. The average US student spends only 5.6 hours a day in school, only 70% of which is devoted to instruction: there’s homeroom, lunch, PE, recess, etc.

Even some of that 70% isn’t used on instruction. Too many teachers don’t consider time the valuable commodity it is. They may routinely start class late (“We’re waiting for a few students.”) and end early (“Well, there are only five minutes left in the period, so you can start on your homework.”) So our kids get perhaps 8,000 hours of instruction over their entire K-12 school career to learn the ever-growing amount of material we throw at them. That’s just 77 eight-hour days per year!

Students should spend 220 eight-hour days in school. With the involving curriculum described above, most kids, even Michael, won’t mind the longer school year. That must be our goal: to make school pleasurable enough that kids are glad it’s a school day. We must think big.

Restore Achievement-Grouped Classes

Imagine you wanted to start learning Spanish. Would you sign up for a class that had beginners, intermediates, and fluent Spanish speakers in the same class? Of course not. Yet, that’s how we increasingly group classes K-8 and even in high school. Do you really think Michael will learn more and have higher self-esteem in classes with high school hotshots, where his low achievement will stand in stark relief?

High achievers fare even worse in mixed-achievement classes. In the past, there were classes for gifted children so they didn't need to be held back while waiting for slower children to learn. Today, however, able students are now usually relegated to mixed-achievement classes, where they too often are bored, and spend much time helping that student who is—figuratively or literally-- still struggling to read Dr. Seuss. Learning to help others is beneficial, but too often denies able students of their right to learn. How short-sighted: a student has more ability so let's not teach her more, let's have her help the weak students. That’s a path likely to reduce everyone to a lower common denominator.

The common sense of grouping classes by achievement is supported by an impressive body of research, largely suppressed because of it would result in Asians being over-represented in higher-level classes and African-Americans over-represented in lower-level classes.

A survey of 1,164 teachers nationwide, conducted by the non-partisan research group, Public Agenda, found that despite hearing years of anti-achievement grouping rhetoric, 7 in 10 remained in favor of the practice.

Opinions are one thing, but what about data on the effectiveness of achievement-grouped classes? A University of Michigan report summarized the result of 76 separate studies on the impact of grouping by ability, and found that they resulted in higher achievement for average and above average students, and was no worse for below-average students. In short, mixed-achievement classes help no one.

Done right, teaching is among the most difficult jobs: directing the intellectual, emotional, and social development of 20-plus kids at a time. Even physicians, among our most respected professionals, deal just with the physical health of just one person at a time. Yet with the current policy of having slow and gifted, well-adjusted and violent kids, immigrant non-English speakers and top native English speakers, all in the same class, we have created a classroom challenge that is nearly impossible for all but the most talented and workaholic teachers.

So why are the nation's schools racing to abandon achievement-grouped classes and instead put slow and gifted in the same class? Mainly it's because America's religion is changing from meritocracy to egalitarianism—treat everyone equally, even if the results are worse as a result. It’s ironic that many of the leading champions of diversity insist on one-size-fits-all education.

What to Do? Here, we don’t need pilot tests. The evidence is clear. We must restore achievement-grouped classes. We must, however, ensure that, unlike in previous incarnations of achievement grouping, that the groupings are fluid—students who show promise must be given an opportunity to move up and those who struggle consistently should move down. That way, all students are more likely to get appropriate-leveled instruction.

To help ensure race-fairness, particular efforts should be made to ensure that children of color are assigned to appropriately leveled classes. To additionally help ensure that an elite is not created and that students get to interact with diverse schoolmates, non-academic subjects should probably not be grouped by achievement.

At the high school level, we must create a high-quality program for non-college bound kids like Michael. It must not be like the dumping-ground vocational education of decades past, in which non-academically oriented kids spent their days in shop classes acquiring obsolete skills. We must create small, family-like career tracks in our high schools, in which students learn real-world survival skills in the context of in-demand careers. For example, in a health careers track, students could be taught crucial reading, communication, relationship-building, math, and science skills by applying them to various health careers. That concrete context makes the material easier to understand, reveals the real-world relevance of the material, and gives students an edge in landing quality, in-demand jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Balance spending on high- and low-achieving students

On top of the regular per-student allocation, we spend additional money for each low-achieving student, and thousands of dollars per student on top of that if the student is one of the now 8 percent of all students identified as a special education student. A school district may well spend an extra 1,000 percent each year for students with a severe disability—for example, students who sit and rock all day—with little expectation that they will improve significantly.

Why do we do so? Mainly, because parents of special education children and their lawyers are often relentless in trying to get whatever they can, without regard to what it takes from the school budget. The lawyers know that the schools will usually agree even to outrageous demands rather than face the extensive and expensive litigation required by law. An additional pressure for the school district to capitulate is that it doesn’t want to risk lawyer-spun stories appearing in the media: “Hard-Hearted District Snubs Handicapped Child.”

In contrast with the thousands of extra dollars spent per special education student, most school districts spend less than $100 a year on each gifted student, those with greater ability to contribute to society. It’s a myth that able kids “will do just fine” without special attention. The world is filled with unsuccessful able people.

Over the past 30 years, a trillion taxpayer dollars have been spent on extra funding for low-achieving students and schools. Yet many studies, notably the definitive study of Title I by top evaluation consultancy, Abt and Associates, finds no evidence that the money has resulted in greater achievement, let alone in closing the gap between the intellectual haves and have nots.

What to Do? Restore the balance in spending between those with the greatest need and those with the greatest potential to profit.

De-emphasize self-esteem programs, reemphasize grades

Among industrialized nations, American students score near the bottom on achievement tests, but are #1 in self-esteem. Conversely, Asian students score highest yet have the lowest self-esteem.

This is not a coincidence. If you have more than moderate self-confidence, it takes the edge off feeling that you need to work hard. In contrast, if your self-confidence is only moderate, you are at least a little worried that your work won’t turn out well. Your only chance, you believe, is to work hard.

Most successful people, when beginning a project, are usually uneasy about whether they’ll be able to do it well. This is even true of icons of success we’d think were brimming with self-esteem. For example, after his election to the presidency, George Washington wrote in his diary: “About 10 o’ clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon . . . with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, and set out for New York . . . with the best disposition to render service to my country, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”

I am a little uneasy as I’m writing every sentence of this article. If my mindset was, “I’m competent, I can do this, no problem,” I’m convinced that my work wouldn’t be as good. I wouldn’t work as hard. It’s ironic that self-esteem, so often promulgated as the cure for low achievement, can cause it.

Because education pundits and pop psych gurus so heavily push self-esteem-building, teachers are ever more de-emphasizing grades. The argument goes, “If we give grades, we risk lowering kids’ self-esteem.” Yet common sense tells us that we need external rewards such as grades for our work. For example, if people didn’t get paid, most people—except perhaps those with unusually satisfying jobs--wouldn’t drag themselves out of bed in the morning and into the stresses of the work world. Yet kids’ “salary”—their grades—has been eliminated in many elementary schools. And in most high schools, the meaning of grades has been reduced--standards have been lowered so much that students routinely receive Ds, Cs, and even Bs, even though they understand little of the course material.

Though it may dismay idealists, few students study because they love learning, especially with today’s ever more difficult curriculum. They study mainly for the grade, and in high school, because some teens still suffer from the delusion that they won’t get into a good college without good grades. Yes, admission to the nation’s 100 brand-name colleges is difficult, but admission to most of the rest of the nation’s 3,500 colleges is surprisingly easy.

What to Do?

True self-esteem doesn’t come from self-esteem programs; it comes from accomplishment. If a kid can’t succeed academically, he shouldn’t be given misleading praise or grades. Instead, meaningful activities must be found at which he can succeed. For example, I’d want Michael in a high-quality vocational program.

Teachers should, where possible, emphasize the positive, but not if it will induce unearned complacency or unrealistic expectations. I have heard too many barely literate high schoolers say that they plan to be doctors and lawyers, spend years struggling down that primrose path, and years later and poorer, realize they were misled.


School reform appears to be proceeding in precisely the wrong direction: more mixed-ability classes, more education aimed at balkanizing us into ethnic enclaves, harder, more boring curriculum, eliminating programs for students with the greatest potential to contribute to society and dramatically expanding programs for students with the least potential.

Far wiser, in my view, is to do the precise opposite, and to add such innovations as teacher training provided by the hiring school district rather than by a university, high quality vocationally oriented curriculum for non-college-bound students, and a national curriculum suffused with material that students, even Michael, will remember after the test is over.

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