'The 4% Solution': Improving Education

August 01, 2012

By John Prestbo

The U.S. educational system needs top-to-bottom rehabilitation. The nation’s long-term economic growth depends on it. And the strength of that growth — remember, we’re aiming for 4% annually — is directly related to the quality of our schools, according to Eric A. Hanushek, a fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

The quality of public education has been declining for several decades. Dropout rates are climbing and student performance is falling. A political firefight has ensued, but the fighting is mainly over money and power, not about helping our students do better.

Stakes are high. Writing in the new book “The 4% Solution,” Hanushek calculates that boosting public school students’ test scores in math and science to the level currently achieved by their German peers would increase the U.S. economic growth rate by 0.5 of a percentage point. Raising the scores even higher, to the level of Canadian students, would accelerate U.S. annual growth by 0.8 of a percentage point, he figures.

As the son of a teacher and school superintendent, I’m fascinated by ideas to improve education. One startling suggestion was presented in The New York Times by Andrew Hacker, a professor emeritus of Queens College, City University of New York: Let’s do away with algebra.

More precisely, reserve algebra, geometry, calculus, and trigonometry for those students who are interested (and motivated) and teach practical quantitative skills to those who aren’t. (We had “general math” back in my high school in the 1950s.) He writes that algebra, et. al., is frequently cited as the reason many students drop out, and that most graduates don’t use it in their jobs anyway.

Hacker argues his case well, but I’m not in position to judge whether it makes sense, educationally. It pleases me, though, that at last we’re seeing some discussion of classroom curricula instead of educational infrastructure.