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It's Time to Fix Our Schools; U.S. Improving in STEM Fields; Navigating School Bureaucracy; Ripple Effects of Teacher Layoffs and Education Cuts

Aired April 9, 2011 - 09:30   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, HOST: "Our system is broken and it feels impossible to fix, but we can't wait."

That's a line from the critically acclaimed education documentary, "Waiting for Superman" and we couldn't agree more. Enough with the politics, it's time for solutions, it's time to fix our schools.

Sarah Brown Wessling is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year.

Sarah, what do you think is the number one thing that works in the classroom to make it successful?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING, 2010 NATIONAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR: I think the Number one thing that works in the classroom is that relationship between the teacher and the student. To make sure that the teacher is empowered to make the kinds of instructional decisions he or she needs to make every day, to meet that student right where he or she is.

ROMANS: And that goes to the core of everything we've been talking about now with budget cuts and with all this handwringing about the future of that relationship, Sarah, and the future of education in this country.

Steve Perry is CNN's education contributor.

Steve in New York, the Bloomberg administration proposed a new plan for failing NYC schools. They want to fire principals and all the teachers, make them reapply for their jobs and then a committee of parents, teachers and administrators would choose the new staff. Could that work?

DR. STEVE PERRY, CNN EDUCATION CONTRIBUTOR: It's the absolute only way in which it will work. You can't expect somebody to get a new school out of the same school when you have the same students, you have the same teachers, the same principal, same lunch ladies and security officers. You can't expect hanging a new theme on the outside of the building to change the building.

ROMANS: Bill Bennett is the CNN political contributor.

You know, Bill, I want to talk about something about here over class size. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he would prefer to put his own school-aged children in a classroom with 28 students led by a fantastic teacher rather than one with 23 kids and a mediocre teacher. Does teacher quality trump class size?

BILL BENNETT, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely, absolutely, it does. They tried this in California, reduced class size, so small, they had to hire a whole bunch of new teachers, hired a bunch of marginal teachers and the result was failure.

But, let's look at the positive side. I think we can put some of this together, what Sarah and what Steve is saying. Great teaching in the classroom, give teachers autonomy to teach the way they want to teach, but hold them accountable for results. Great teaching, reward it. Great content, encourage it. we're still not stretching our students as much as we should, particularly in math and science in the early grades. And then great delivery assistance. Take advantage of the new technology, Christine, there's digital education, web-based instruction, embedded video, these things can really be harnessed by a good teacher, I'll bet Sarah does, to maximum effect for our students.

ROMANS: And Sarah, that same question to you. You say you would rather have a great teacher in front of a decent size class, a small class. You don't want to trade off there. What about longer days, longer years? This is something that a lot of people talk about, increasing the length of the school day and the school year? What do you think about some of those -- those are really common things people say to improve our kids' education? What do you think -- Sarah.

WESSLING: Absolutely. Well, to some degree I think that's the wrong question to ask because we can lengthen our school day, we can lengthen our school year, but if we continue to do the same kinds of things within that time that we're doing right now, I don't think it matters.

I think the question we have to ask is, how are we going to focus on what kids are learning? How are we going to make sure that we are treating our teachers as learners first so that they can also be empowered to do those exact things that Bill talked about, so that we can have collective responsibility for the education and learning of everyone who walks in the school environment?

ROMANS: And let's listen to the president, he was in Boston with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, as many as a quarter of American students are not finishing high school. A quarter. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations and America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.


ROMANS: OK. Bill, you've run the education department before. We know there's a bureaucracy here, schools are different across the country with different challenges and different solutions. It seems like everybody wants to go to the same place. How do we get there -- Bill. BENNETT: Well, I think that the conversation that you've had now three weeks running is a good start. The conversation that that movie "Waiting for Superman" has stimulated, the recognition of people like Sarah, we need more of that. There's very little recognition of excellence in our system and almost no reward of excellence in our system.

But again I come back to the three things I said. Recognize great teaching, raise the level of content, and use the new technology, the delivery systems in a productive way. We can do this.

As Steve said, there are productive schools in America. This is not arcane; it's not so mysterious that we can't penetrate it. Let's do what the successful schools do. Even successful schools and environments and neighborhoods where the odds are against them, they all do the same things. The old story said all happy families alike, all unhappy families are different in different ways. Look at the happy families. They all do pretty much the same thing and it's those three areas: teaching, emphasis on content, use of it technology to personalize instruction.

ROMANS: Steve, so I'm going to take to have you pick that up there, you know, Bill's talking about what the successful districts are doing. What are the things that are working? What is working?

PERRY: When you look at the most elite private schools and you look at the most successful urban schools, they are literally exactly the same. They're designed for the same purpose. They begin with high expectations, they're supported by a structure in which the teachers do have the autonomy to teach what it is that they know how to do, but they're also held accountable, they're on annual contracts so that means that they must perform. And then you go down from there.

They -- the students have a relationship with the faculty through an advisory relationship, meaning that they have someone who's monitoring their daily progress and finally, they finish with a deep respect for the families that they work with, that the parents are not the enemy. They're, in fact, seen as very reasonable members of the education community.

ROMANS: Oh, great. You guys, a great discussion again. We're going to talk later in the program about parents as partners with teachers and we've heard a lot, you guys, about how we've been talking a lot about fixing education, but a lot of you out there at home are saying, parents need to do more. Thank you so much. Sarah, Bill and Steve.

Relax, America, relax. Chinese math whizzes and India engineers are not stealing your kids' future, at least that's what my next guest thinks.


ROMANS: We keep talking about the future of jobs in this country, in the STEM fields, that's science, technology, engineering and math, but when it comes to the quality of our math and science education, the U.S. Ranks 52nd out of 139 nations. That's according to the World Economic Forum's "Global Competitiveness Report." The top of the list: Singapore followed by Belgium and Finland.

Now, before we trash the American education system, my next guest says not so fast. In this month's "Foreign Policy" magazine, Ben Wildavsky writes, "Relax, America. Chinese math whizzes and India engineers aren't stealing your kids' future." He joins us now.

Ben, in your piece, you show the "Life" magazine cover from 1958, comparing sort of a slacker American student with an overachieving Russian student. We've been looking over our shoulder for an awful long time to the rest of the world, haven't we?

BEN WILDAVSKY, EWING MARION KAUFFMAN FOUNDATION: That's absolutely true. We've had this, you know, Sputnik moment since Sputnik.

ROMANS: It's not really fair to compare the U.S. with Finland or Belgium, is it? I mean, the U.S. education system is far bigger and much different?

WILDAVSKY: It's true. I mean, look, two things are true. We absolutely -- we're kind of -- you know, our performance is mediocre, it needs to get a lot better, no question. But if you look at a place like Finland, you know, it's, of course, it's a small country, it's a really homogenous student population.

One of the biggest problems we face in this country is a glaring and really shameful achievement gap between white kids and Asian kids, on the one hand, black kids and Latino kids on the other, huge gaps. We absolutely have a moral obligation to close that gap. But, what that means is, if you look at white kids and Asian kids they compare with some of the top-scoring countries in the world, places like Finland and Canada. Black kids and Latino kids compare with countries like Turkey and Bulgaria. So, we really have to focus on closing those gaps and it makes it tough to compare us with countries that are so different, so much more homogenous.

ROMANS: And that's where the education crisis is in your view. Your education crisis is in this gap between these two extremes in this country and not on this overall American education system is terrible.

Let's go through some of the points in your article. Tell me why you dispute the conventional wisdom that, "American kids are falling behind?" You dispute that, that a lot of people say this.

WILDAVSKY: Well, I guess I would say there's two issues: One is factual, one is philosophical. There were some test results released a couple months ago, they're called PISA, they're done by the OECD, the Organization of Industrialized Countries. We were basically in the middle of the pack and there were lots of headlines, you know, basically the sky is falling, it's a Sputnik moment, but, in fact, what nobody really reported, was that we had actually improved a bit since the last time, both in science and in math, reading stayed about level.

So, on the factual side we're moving in the right direction. Philosophically, the big problem that I see is that people tend to act as though somehow other countries gains are our loss. It's this notion of a zero sum game. And as long as we're not moving backwards I think that's really the wrong way to look at it. You know, we should be happy if other countries are making improvements because we're all better off in a better educated world.

ROMANS: One thing we all see when we look at those rankings, at least on the surface, so many people say the Chinese students are eating America's lunch. You say OK, only partly true.

WILDAVSKY: That's right. I mean, look, we do know that, of course, their education is something that's valued very, very highly in China. You know, this idea of tiger moms I think really has something to it. Kids work very hard, families push them very hard, but having said that, a lot of the headlines out of the last round of tests came out of Shanghai which was participating for the first time in these international tests. They came out Number one, head and shoulders above everybody else.

But you know, guess what, Shanghai is not China. Shanghai is a town magnet, it brings people from all over the country, it's the beneficiary of lots and lots of government spending, there's whole other parts of China much more recall rural, that are much less educated and they haven't been tested. So, we just don't know how the rest of the country would do and when you look at the U.S. figures, those are for a national cross-section of the entire country.

ROMANS: Another conventional wisdom, how about this? The U.S. no longer attracts the best and the brightest. You say that's just wrong.

WILDAVSKY: Well, true and again, it comes back to this zero sum game idea. Yes, it's true that our market share of foreign students has gone down from 24 percent to 19 percent in the last 10 years. However, we have 150,000 more foreign students. And the reason is, there are so many more students now studying outside their home countries. It's gone from two million in 1990, or 2000, to 3.3 million last year. So basically, the pie has gotten bigger.

ROMANS: All right, Ben Wildavsky, a fantastic piece, "Relax America." I really appreciate you coming by. Thanks so much.

WILDAVSKY: Thanks for having me.

ROMANS: None of this changes, of course, that we have to prepare our kids for college. Over the next few weeks, high school seniors will make their final decisions where they will be spending the next four years of their lives. Then comes the scramble to pay for it all. If you're taking out a bunch of loans, you to be smart about it. First, gone are the days of the five-year plan. Tuition is up more than 400 percent since 1982. I'm not kidding. You just can't afford to stick around. Also, you can't afford to switch majors three times. Make a plan and stick to it. The key here, is to find out what you're good at, what you enjoy and what someone will pay you to do.

And how much money should you borrow? Well, a good rule of thumb is this, don't borrow more money than you expect to earn in your first year of working. That means we all have to be saving more money for college, too.

You invest so much more than money in your child: Teachers, guidance counselors, taxpayers and parents. Next, how to navigate school bureaucracy. What to do to get the most for your kid.


ROMANS: How many times have you heard that for your child to succeed in a new, more competitive world, he or she needs an education? First, a quality public school education and then, a college degree, the right college degree. Not from the right university necessarily, but in the right subject. Too many American schools simply aren't preparing their kids and millions of parents are wondering, what can I do to get the most out of the education system for my kids?

Lily Eskelsen is an elementary schoolteacher and vice president of the National Education Association.

Lily, how do you get the most out of school as a parent?

LILY ESKELSEN, NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION: You know, go up to the school's Web site, take a look at all of the programs. And there's an awful lot that's being offered in public schools right now that nobody knows about. We don't have a big advertising budget. But we've got A.P. classes, international Baca lorrate classes, foreign languages, science programs, afterschool music programs. There's an amazing array of things out there. A lot of it is on the chopping block, but the more parents who are demanding that their kids have that very broad selection, that's going to help get their kids into those great programs and universities, the more the districts are going to build those programs.

ROMANS: That's a good point. Wendy Walsh is a doctor of psychology and blogger for

Wendy, you know, we're getting mixed messages, here. There's a runaway best-selling book called "Tiger Mother" that says we don't expect enough from our kids. Now there's a new film that says we're push them too hard. I want you to listen to this clip from the film "Race to Nowhere".



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I put so much pressure on myself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I definitely felt a lot of pressure to have perfect grades.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The stress definitely first comes from home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because my mother wasn't able graduate, she puts extra pressure on this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You need to have the best grades.


ROMANS: So, Wendy, which is it? Do we expect too much or we don't expect enough? I don't know.

WALSH: The answer is it depends on the kid. I happen to have two distinctly different kids. One straight "A," loves school, never have to push her, the other one needs a lot of supervision and a lot of coaching and incentives and everything to get her through. So, it depends on the kid, it depends how easy they are hurt by criticism and pressure and whether they excel through a little bit of pushing.

ROMANS: I think both of you will agree, you can't put a kid in and school and go on auto pilot as a parent. I mean, that's what this is all about, it's about knowing what the differences are with your kids, knowing what's offered at your school. The weaknesses maybe at your school and the strengths of your school and learning how to navigate that.

In the recent weeks, you guys, there's been a focus on failing teachers, failing schools, unions, but a lot of you are writing to us and saying parents need to step up. Steve told us: "As a parent, if either of my daughters isn't doing well in school, I see that as my responsibility. What must I do as their father to ensure their success in school? Their teachers are my partners in this, nothing more, nothing less."

Lily, what makes a parent a partner with teachers. And then when do they become a helicopter parent?

ESKELSEN: That is like music. That is total music/ And what was said before, it's a balance. You have to have a balance between a really caring teacher who knows his or her stuff and really caring parents who say, I'm your partner. That's when the kid wins. With all of the curriculum and books and things that might be going on, if you have that partnership and a good balance between when do I push, when do I let go and let this kid fly on his own? Then the kid really starts really moving.

ROMANS: Hey, you know, Wendy, I think so much of this depends on where you live. Quite honestly, in an underperforming district, the best parent in the world might not be able to overcome it and that's kind of what the sad reality is here. If you're a parent who is trying to be that parent that is pushing, but you're pushing against a district that might be an underperformer, how do you navigate that?

WALSH: Yes, but, I say that but my children 10 years ago entered a school that was considered one of the worst ones in the state, it's now one of the best ones thanks to a whole group of parents, including myself, who founded a booster club, brought in private money, corporate money and created an amazing school in our community. So, it's possible to turn around any school if you want to put the time in.

You know, one other thing I want to add, separate from the school, if you are sending your kids to public school, like I am, you know, take that money that you might have spent some of it on private school and give your children the gift of foreign travel, give them the gift of foreign languages. This is what our children will need to compete.

ROMANS: We could talk about it for hours. We'll talk about it again. Lily and Wendy, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time, today.

You know, there's virtually no chance that budget cuts aren't affecting your schools, if not yet in the classroom, maybe your local diner or mall. We'll explain the ripple effects of teacher layoffs, next.


ROMANS: There's no way cuts to education aren't hitting your town. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbt is asking teachers to freeze their salaries for a year, saying it would save the state $400 million. If Texas governor Rick Perry gets the balance budget his way more than 100,000 teachers could lose their jobs. That's one-third of all teachers in Texas. And California has allowed school systems to shorten the school year by five days each of the last two years. So listen up, your town could very well be next.

Sam Dillon is the national education correspondent for the "New York times" and Rick Newman is the chief business correspondent for "U.S. News & World Report."

Welcome to both of you, Sam I want to ask you first, are we going to see classes get bigger and bigger and bigger as they cut teachers and, basically, have more kids in every classroom.

SAM DILLON, NEW YORK TIMES: We will see much larger class sizes beginning this fall. The last two years, as the recession has spread through school systems, there have been billions and billions of dollars that have come from the federal government that have been like a shock absorber for a lot of these cuts.

ROMANS: Right. And it's wearing off. It's wearing off, now.

DILLON: It's wearing off.

ROMANS: So, when you are going to have bigger classes, maybe the teacher is going to do the same kind of routine. Teaching in front of the kids is going to be the same, but what they do they lose? I mean, are they going to be losing time grading papers outside, the kind of things they'll be assigned to do because the teachers are just not going to have time to grade all those papers or do the big essays.

DILLON: That's it, the teachers say that the presentation of new material in a class really doesn't change as you move from say 25 student to 30 students or above, but there's that point in the class day when the important thing is to make sure that students have actually absorbed the material that's come in or to catch up with a student that's been absent in previous days and review that with them or in the evening, respond to e-mails or phone calls or, as you say, grade papers. That's going to become much more difficult.

ROMANS: You think, Rick, though, that we will not see the job cuts that are being advertised. I mean, this is the way -- this is the whole way the game is played, right? There's going to be big proposals for cuts and then they're going to go negotiate.

RICK NEWMAN, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Yes, the numbers we're hearing in the headlines are the worst possible scenario and probably will end up not being nearly that bad, but a recurring theme for the next five to 10 years in education and in many other areas of middle class life, is that the government is just going to do less for you. We're going to have less government, but we can't afford the government we've had for the last 15 or 20 years. People are going to have to do more for themselves and I don't think that's Armageddon. I think that if people can just take a little more burden upon themselves, maybe not so much the mentality that we're going to outsource our kids' education to the school system completely, I think parent and kids will be able to do just fine.

ROMANS: So, civic involvement. I mean, I've been calling it...

NEWMAN: Any involvement with your kids and your teachers...

ROMANS: You can't be an auto pilot if you're putting your kid in the school. I mean...

NEWMAN: There are many good tools that help with this. I mean, e-mailing teachers is an obvious one. I mean, a lot of schools have the lesson plans online now, it makes it easier for parents to follow along, if they want. Yes, it takes more time. But that's what it's going to take.

ROMANS: But, the bottom line here, is that if you've got all these cuts, Rick. Teachers spend money in the community. What is the ripple effect if the teachers aren't spending money in the community?

NEWMAN: I think it's similar to the ripple effect if everybody is not spending as much money in the community and again, you know, these unions are still pretty powerful. I think they'll protect a lot of those jobs.

But to go back to what Sam was mentioning. For parents, there's no one size fits all program that's going to be imposed on all schools.

ROMANS: And there shouldn't be.

NEWMAN: There shouldn't be. You need to find out what's happening at your school and what exactly is being cut. It may affect your kid in the certain way, it's probably going to be the nice to have things, you know, like homework club maybe, or enrichment programs, things like that.

ROMANS: I mean, you're going to have to pay in varsity football. I mean, that's already happening in a lot of states.

NEWMAN: So, find out what's happening at your school, so you know who to compensate for it.

ROMANS: All right, Sam Dillon, Rick Newman, thank you so much for coming in with your expertise, really appreciate it.

We want to know what you think. What's working and not working in education in your neighborhood. Send us an e-mail to you can also find me on Facebook and at Twitter @Christine Romans.

That's going to wrap things up for us on this morning. Back now to CNN SATURDAY for other stories making news.