TUNG’S TAKE: Here’s my plan to fix the U.S. educational crisis

The following is part one of a three-part blog that describes how I would go about fixing the current U.S. educational crisis. This installment covers lower-school education.

When I was in the first grade, I would joke to teacher Robin Kren that one day I would be president and she would be my secretary of education. We laughed about it so often that to this day it is an inside joke between the two of us.

But I’m afraid that we can’t wait until 2032.

“Why?” I’m guessing you’re probably asking.

Because America is falling desperately behind other nations: Korea, China-Shanghai (more on that later), Switzerland, Austria – even the Czech Republic with respect to math –  have surpassed us, according to the Program of International Student Assessment test.

So right about now is when you would expect me to say, “More standardized testing!” We should refine testing until our entire nation is like Maotanchang, the infamous single industry cram school buried in the mountains of Anhui province, China.

But you would be wrong – very wrong. To fix the education system, we have to start at the bottom. What better building block than those formative years in lower school?

To be fair, I didn’t have a typical childhood. I went to a privileged private school and had tutors at my beck and call. The longest amount of time I have spent at a public school campus was when I went to John F. Kennedy High School to take the SAT.

But from my experience with other kids – specifically my relatives who went to public schools in the Elk Grove and San Marino (a suburb of LA) school districts – I can say with certainty that there are things we must change if we want this nation to succeed.

First, we need to abandon standardized testing, specifically in the lower grades. There is no point to testing a second grader with a multiple-choice test. It isn’t prudent or smart to judge people on how well they can choose between a, b, c, or d, especially when said people are 7 years old!

In terms of the educational reform movement, specifically the call to action by Michelle Rhee, I find the emphasis on standardized testing to be good in theory but horrible in practice.

By pinning teacher hirings and firings to test scores, instructors end up teaching material they don’t believe in (or worse yet, completely pointless material) just so that they don’t end up getting axed.

But this isn’t smart. We should ensure that teachers have the experience and the knowledge to help students achieve more. Simply testing them isn’t the catch-all solution.

My opponents will argue if you can’t find the teachers who aren’t performing, then you can’t improve the system.

I would disagree with that point as well. When I taught at Hong Kong Summerbridge, our students weren’t given multiple-choice tests. They weren’t forced to rote-memorize page upon page of material to pass an examination. Furthermore, teachers weren’t graded against each other through their students’ scores.

There will be those who would say that Summerbridge is a charity, and that it has no need to hire and fire teachers. But it does. Summerbridge has fired teachers who didn’t perform or were against the mission of the program.

How did we improve? Easy answer. We had evaluations, when our higher-ups would sit in on a class and watch us teach. Afterwards we were given copious notes, as well as materials, to help us improve and sometimes even recordings of our own teachings to see what we could change to better communicate ideas and concepts to our students.

I suggest that we implement similar measures, grading teachers not by standardized tests but by independent evaluations by trained teams of professional evaluators. Teachers would not be fired without warning. Instead a several-step process of professional development and classes would help teachers teach better. To keep these fair and honest evaluations, they would be conducted without warning so evaluators could give honest check-ups on the teachers’ progress.

These new evaluators would have to be from the federal government. Think of them as the project managers of a large corporation of affiliates. Even the CEO of Costco makes his infamous death marches, where he visits five-to-seven locations unannounced to tell managers how to do their jobs better.

The final alteration to the current elementary and middle-school programs in America would be a recalibration towards math, science and health classes. In an increasingly globalized world, in which STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is sought after, we are doing our nation a disservice by not focusing on these areas.

Mathematics, in particular, needs to be ramped up. I remember learning multiplication at school in the third grade. But at home I was pushed by my mother to learn it two years earlier. America’s youth are smart. They can do more if we just raise our expectations.

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