Public school has gotten worse — although much more good education goes on there than is generally acknowledged, and a significant amount of boring conventionality is sliding by in private schools.

What is the better way?

First, here is what does not work. Test-driven, rote curriculum does not work. It is embittering teachers and forcing them to abandon innovation to chase scores. Excellent schools aren’t trying to move 1 percent above basic. They are teaching students to program computers and solve climate change.

Blaming teachers and their union doesn’t work. We need teachers on our side to build better schools, and we face a coming shortage of teachers as baby boomers retire.

Shifting the deck chairs doesn’t work. Proposals to break up the Department of Education, trading one bureaucracy for five, or for an appointed board, trading board politics for gubernatorial politics, will not work. Politicians offer restructurings because they are afraid to raise revenue to run schools well. Debating an elected vs. appointed school board ignores the real reasons schools are failing: long-term divestment from the infrastructure of good education; underfunded schools dealing with multiple, impossible mandates; underpaid, unsupported teachers; and elite flight.

What would a truly good school look like?

I asked one of the best teachers I know. She described a classroom that the children own. No one tells children to sit still or be quiet. They move around the room attending to tasks they are responsible for. Their body language says “I own this place and I have important work to do here.” Whether it is a science experiment or putting tools back in the right place in the cupboard, the good classroom has a culture of active responsibility for learning, emanating from the students.

In the good school, the students, the teachers, and the parents own the school. This is our school, and this is how we do it. A parent picking up a child sees a discarded can on the ground. “Let’s pick that up and take it to the recycling center.” A student sees a visitor arriving with a hesitant look. “Are you looking for the office?” she asks. A teacher wants to build a catapult in the parking lot and has the students draw up plans to present to the principal, knowing that the first, reflexive response from the office is always “great, let’s figure out a way to do this.”

The good school district is one that supports the good school. It focuses on putting strong principals in place, paying them well enough to take on the hard jobs of forcing out the bad teachers and building a high-performing culture. Good principals will document the inadequacies of bad teachers and ease them out.

No teacher’s union, ever, has taken the position that bad teachers should have job protection. The union is used as an excuse for gutless management. It doesn’t feel good to fire people, but we can pay principals well and tell them it is their job. Supported principals get their phone calls answered by a person with authorization power at the DOE, and the answer to whatever they are asking for is yes. A good superintendent makes this the culture of the school district, and we can put principals in charge of determining whether the superintendant is achieving this mandate. We can drill down to local control without restructuring the school board or the DOE, simply by demanding school-centered management practices.

Here are ten things we should do today if we are serious about saving public education in Hawaii:

  1. Raise teacher salaries to attract the best, at the same time that we raise requirements for entering the teaching profession.
  2. Fund schools at levels that will turn back three decades of divestment in Hawaii, allowing us to reduce class size and bring back art, music, and PE.
  3. Reward and recruit strong principals.
  4. Demand an end to unfunded mandates.
  5. Introduce wrap-around social services to the schools. If families lack medical care, drug abuse counseling, violence intervention, food, or housing, the schools can help provide it.
  6. Provide quality early childhood education, investing where intervention reaps the biggest payoff: in the first five years.
  7. Create incentives for families to choose public school, and bring the social capital of elites back to public schools.
  8. Organize to vote out politicians who strip-mine public education, imposing furlough days on public schools while their children attend private academies.
  9. Use qualitative evaluation along with quantitative, measuring success by more than scores.
  10. Reward and replicate best practices. There are good public schools and excellent public school teachers: grow more.

Naysayers will argue we can’t afford these changes. The punitive No Child Left Behind Act is what we got from politicians who pretend we can fix schools for free. Look at the much admired private academies in Hawaii, and note their multimillion dollar endowments, supplemented by steady fundraising.

Good education costs, but it is worth it. More significantly, bad education costs, too. Our prisons are filled with citizens we failed to educate. Many never learned to read or write. Many had undiagnosed learning disabilities. Many were physically abused. One effective classroom could have caught that kid and changed the path from prison to productive citizen.

We have boatloads of longitudinal data proving that early intervention works. A child who gets quality early childhood education is more likely to graduate, to get a job, to stay off welfare, to avoid teen pregnancy, to stay out of prison, to go to college, to stay off drugs. Just about any social ill you can name is increased by bad education and ameliorated by good education. Pay now, or pay later: failing to teach a child costs.