Kenny brought up a few good points on improving education in his comments yesterday, so let me follow up on that:
College does not equal vocational preparation. I was ranting in yesterday's post about how most undergraduate degrees do very little to prepare you for the actual jobs they purport to prepare you for. But don't think for a moment that I think college should just be a vocational apprenticeship to prepare you for a job and nothing more. I really do believe in the value of a liberal education, where you study lots of different things, broaden your mind, and get enough exposure to different disciplines that you figure out what you want to do with your life. Nor should high school be specialized, either; at that level, you're still just learning basic skills like reading critically, solving problems, and understanding why electoral colleges are a bad idea. I just think we need to explicitly split out the phases of development: stop pretending that college is supposed to give you specific skills for a specific job. I would probably recommend students have a year or two (or three or four if they really want to) of liberal studies, and then go to vocational school that focuses exclusively on providing skills that are actually used in a particular job. Those vocational schools would be set up primarily to provide hands-on experience doing the real job; classroom studies would be less than half of the curriculum.
Only market forces can elevate good teachers to the level they deserve. Everyone agrees that we need to reward good teachers and get rid of the bad ones. I don't think a government-run bureaucracy is the best way to do that. We've spent the last eight years doing exhaustive testing of students, but all we've improved is our ability to prevaricate about the meaning of the results. I don't think measuring teacher performance – or student performance, for that matter – needs to be all that complicated. Students know pretty quickly whether a teacher is any good or not, and parents can make that assessment as well. If parents are given the choice of what schools their children will attend, I imagine they will, by and large, make good choices. The best schools and teachers will rise to the top if people are allowed to vote with their feet. Ideally, I think the way to do that is with vouchers that can be spent in public or private schools. But if you're worried about money getting drained out of the public school system, then just make it a closed system of 100% charter schools, with each school competing with each other for students. I've yet to hear anyone make a persuasive case as to why that wouldn't work, especially for poor students who currently have almost no choice in schools.
We should redefine education as an ongoing process. For centuries, we seem to have thought of education as something we do to the young. We teach 'em what they need to know, and then we're done with 'em. That model doesn't seem to hold up so well in a modern economy. Rather than trying to jam in all the necessary education at one go, I think we would do better to let people out into the world sooner, and let them discover for themselves what they want and need to learn. Robert Pirsig suggested something like this in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; you can't teach people the answers before they've come to ask the right questions. So, give people time to ask the questions. Let them explore in college, and then come back later to get the specific vocational training they need. Once everyone starts thinking of education as something they want to get, because it will enable them to do specific things they want to do, the whole enterprise will get a lot easier.
I would note that for most professions, the most useful "vocational training" would be to just start doing the job. Perhaps with more supervision, a la apprenticeship. Perhaps with little or no pay to reflect the fact that you're a beginner. But nonetheless do the actual job--very little really can or needs to be taught in a school setting. And although working for nothing doesn't sound too appealing, it's better than paying $30K+ per year in tuition.
But there are lots of vested interests whose income depends on the idea that you need 4 years of class before you can work at a consulting firm or bank. Or 7 years (undergrad + law school) to be a lawyer (completely outrageous, and not true anywhere else in the world).