November 5th, 2011
11:00 AM ET

GPS Special: Fixing education

This Sunday, a Fareed Zakaria GPS primetime special – “Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education”. The show airs at 8p and 11p ET/PT.

While America was once tops in education, we are now ranked 15th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math.

What happened? How can we dig ourselves out of this deep hole?

For inspiration, we go to South Korea and Finland – two nations that consistently rank highly on education. Interestingly, the two have very different approaches. South Korea has long school days and school years with a strong focus on standardized testing. Finland is much more lackadaisical – except in its approach to teachers and teaching. In Finland, teachers are revered; it’s tougher to get into masters programs for teaching than it is to get into higher education for medicine and law.

So what can we learn? We talked about the priorities of teachers, testing, and technology with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates whose foundation has given $5 billion to education so far; we speak with former DC schools chair Michelle Rhee, and education activist Diane Ravitch. We look at a novel way of teaching, started by a former investment manager who stumbled upon a formula for student success: Sal Khan is the creator of the Khan Academy, a YouTube-based “classroom” that so far has gotten over 80 million hits - and reports of success using it in real classrooms.

Finally, Fareed offers his take on what will fix our troubles.

Here are some excerpts:

The secrets of Seoul

Welcome to Seoul, South Korea – capital city of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. There are many reasons to be impressed with this Asian tiger that rose from the ashes of a civil war. But South Korea’s crown jewel is its education system. Thanks to a militant drive for success, this nation’s students have outperformed the rest of the world for the better part of a decade. On the most recent Pisa exam, the benchmark international test, South Korea ranked first in reading and second in math among all nations.

President Obama has noticed, singing Korea’s praises on a regular basis. On a visit to Seoul in 2009, he asked South Korean president Lee Myung-bak what his biggest challenge was in education. The president’s reply? Korean parents care too much about their children’s success. We visited the Cho family on a typical day for their son, Sung-do. He gets up every day at six a.m., jumps rope as the sun comes up. Then eats a massive breakfast his mother has prepared. She says a healthy meal helps his concentration. Sung-do goes to school from eight a.m. to four p.m. on most days – much longer hours than most American students. There are about two hundred and five schools days in the South Korean calendar – twenty-five more than the typical U.S. schedule. Over the course of their academic careers, South Korean children will spend almost two more years in the classroom than their American counterparts.

Insights from Bill Gates

Fareed Zakaria: If you were the secretary of education, well, let’s say you have - even more powerful than the secretary of education. So suppose you could change something about the structure of American education, the, you know, the system, what would it be?

Bill Gates: If I was in charge of a school district, it would be about hiring the best teachers. And how do you get them to learn from each other and how do you make sure you’re bringing the really good ones in. So the basic research about great teaching, that’s now become our biggest investment.

It could be a very smart investment. One study says that if students had a top teacher for four years straight, the achievement gap between blacks and whites would disappear.

The Gates foundation has launched a massive effort to figure out how America can foster great teaching – collecting data from thousands of educators and even videotaping their lessons.

Fareed Zakaria: What do you think makes a good teacher?

Bill Gates: Clearly, there's something about engaging the student. As I've watched the videos of great teachers, they are constantly looking out and seeing that the kids are starting to fidget. They're bringing up the energy level. They're calling on this kid. They're using examples.

Fareed Zakaria: But Gates’ research is not only about identifying great teachers.

His team is also figuring out how to grade the teachers – just like they grade their students.

They’re looking at different ways to reward and motivate good teachers – like adding to their paychecks based on a principal’s evaluation or their students’ performance.

Bill Gates: Why is teaching going to be better 10 years from now, 20 years from now, than it is today? Well, partly because we’re going to have these feedback mechanisms. Now the way you weigh the different elements, how much tests weigh into that, how strong the other elements are, that’s what we’re investing in.

And that’s where things can get controversial – because when it comes to education policy, the politics are nasty.

Topics: Education • GPS Show

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