Ambrose: Lessons on rescuing our schools




A report on American K-12 education as a security threat, a bully-boy teachers’ strike and an emotionally powerful movie combine as a convincing lesson plan instructing us to rescue our schools soon — and that we can.

We spend more than any other country per student and get less than most. That’s one finding of a Council on Foreign Relations task force that told us we rank 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading compared with other industrialized nations. Our schools have the shortest day and year among developed countries and get maybe 22 percent ready for college. For a reversal, we have to have more school choice, more competition, more accountability and higher standards.

Spending more won’t get us there, the task force said, though spending was important to Chicago teachers who make an average of $76,000 a year. They just won hundreds of more millions in raises in a system digging itself a multibillion-dollar hole. The increase came as a result of a strike meant to show how much the teachers were dedicated to the 350,000 students they were deserting, or so they said. Meanwhile, it’s reported that 40 percent of those victims won’t graduate, that 66 percent of the schools do not meet state standards and 80 percent of the eighth-graders aren’t up to snuff in their reading abilities.

A big issue was evaluating teachers in part by testing the progress of students. The strikers, who didn’t like the idea even though teachers helped devise the specifics, did finally agree with a version of the plan. Something more decisive happened to one bureaucratically oppressed school in the movie “Won’t Back Down.” A poor, single mom, desperately worried about her dyslexic daughter in the hands of an uncaring teacher, joined forces with other parents for something resembling a revolution, and you found yourself pulling for them.

She was especially helped by one teacher, who was eventually joined by a number of other teachers portrayed as eager to do a good job, though worn down. They gave up their union to fight for a charter school that would have few other encumbrances, and you might guess how the education establishment is reacting to the movie: barf, ugh, groan, moan, go away right-wingers.

Charter school are not always great, but, according to one study, they tend to work well in poor urban areas, as proven in Chicago. Most teachers deserve applause, but the biggest fault of the unions is that they protect the lousy ones. If the wrong kinds of standardized tests are improperly administered without taking account of other factors, they won’t help much in evaluating teachers, though the right kind, administered well, will.

The biggest issue is to get rid of the worst teachers, and I am grateful for an article causing me to locate and read an essay by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University professor ( He makes a convincing case that replacing the worst teachers even with average ones can make an enormous difference in the lives of students and the welfare of the country. We need to do it fairly, but we definitely need to do it.