CROWLEY: Joining me now, Democratic senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. He was the superintendent of Denver's public schools, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, he is the former education secretary and former president of the University of Tennessee, Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers and CNN education contributor Steve Perry is the founder and principal of Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut. Thank you all for being here.
Let me throw out to you just the overarching question, I think that I personally was sort of appalled when I saw how the U.S. stacked up against other education systems around the world of 38 countries, we're about 14th, very middling. What are other countries doing that we're not doing? Just jump ball.
WEINGARTEN: So, we actually had an international summit sponsored by the secretary of education just this past month to think about just that, with many of the countries that out compete us at that summit. And what they are doing they focus on preparing teachers like we prepare doctors in this country. They focus on the support in classrooms. They look at teachers as the president has often said as nation builders and with a lot of stature.
We do things where, you know, we think a charter school here will work. Let's focus on testing one day. Let's focus on charter schools one day. We do the silver bullet theory. They do the theory of really growing knowledge.
BENNET: We have not recognized how the world has changed around us both in terms of our delivery of education and the international delivery. So when the last president became president George Bush, the second George Bush, we led the world in the production of college graduates. Today, ten years later, we're 12th or 15th in the world. That's how fast it's changed. And we're running a system right now that's producing from children in poverty only nine college graduates out of 100 kids.
So my view is that, you know, if we were given a blank sheet of paper to redesign the system, we wouldn't design the system we have today. One of the things we do is figure out how to much better support people that want to teach in our country.
CROWLEY: Either one of you, it seems to me that we don't really have time here to -- an entire generation is being lost in an educational system that's not just serving them badly, it's serving the nation badly.
PERRY: Well, what we've done is we've designed schools to support the needs of adults, not the expectations that the country puts on its children. So we've created working conditions that are most conducive to the adults. We have 6 1/2 hour school days. We have an eight month school year, all of which is counter to what children need.
So one things that we're not doing that other countries are doing, and successful schools in this country -- because we need not leave this country, we have very successful schools in this country -- we haven't put children first.
CROWLEY: Let me just -- I just want to give these figures to our audience. 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, 25th in math. We must be doing something -- what is glaring here?
ALEXANDER: Well, let's think about what we're doing right. What we're doing right is by any standard we have almost all the best colleges and universities in the world, almost any standard. We should change our elementary and secondary system and make it more like our colleges which is to say create independent schools, we call them charter schools, and let the money follow the children to any school that fits the needs of those children. If they need to be there from 6:00 in the morning to 6:00 at night and on Saturday they can select that school. That would help.
WEINGARTEN: So, let me just jump in here, Senator. Because the senator has had tremendous amount of experience in terms of education. But that's -- but what the other countries are doing right is that they are actually focusing on making sure that all kids have a decent shot at education. They are not doing the kind of silver bullet theories we do in the United States.
(CROSSTALK) ALEXANDER: The silver bullet theory is not giving -- if you give a poor kid a ticket to a good school, that's not a silver bullet, that's an opportunity.
WEINGARTEN: But what I'm saying is when we look at the evidence, look at the evidence, we have some incredibly great schools in the United States of America and we have some really terrible schools. But if you look at the evidence of what works, what works is having a strong group of teachers and principals working together collaboratively.
Having a real good curriculum that -- where we're engaging kids in a real way and trumping poverty, not making excuses for it. But these other countries in the world don't have independent charter schools.
ALEXADNER: Why don't you let a poor kid have a ticket to a good school, at Hartford for example.
PERRY: Why is it -- if you believe what you said, then why is it that the teachers unions are the first in line to stop children from leaving failed schools? Why is it on a regular basis your organization stands in support of the teachers in failed schools. If we put children first, if we put children first, than what we don't care where they go to school, we just care they go to a good school.
We need your organization and others to stand with the education reforms and say children are first, every day, and regardless of what we think the school is or how hard the teachers are working if they are not producing shut the school down period.
WEINGARTEN: Actually, we've done a lot of those shut the schools down for the last 20 years and it hasn't worked. But on the ground right now as we're talking in Washington, there are cuts in school budgets throughout the country. So kids are losing out in terms of music. They are losing out in terms of sports. They are losing out in terms of arts. They are losing the kind of activities that they need to engage them.
The issue is...
ALEXANDER: Why don't you let them then go to a school that has music and arts.
PERRY: One of the reasons that we have that...
WEINGARTEN: We need to have the finances in schools so we can help all kids, not some kids. The bottom line is...
PERRY: That's not the issue. One of the issues, as a principal who is... WEINGARTEN: Steve, one more -- can I just finish one more point, which is that the point that you're raising about these kind of alternatives, there are studies now that say that 80 percent of these alternative schools, the charter schools are not performing as well as public schools.
PERRY: But that's not the only alternative. And as somebody who is on the front line and who does have the responsibility of maintaining a local budget, I think that one of the best things to happen in education has been the budget crisis because it requires us to hook into ourselves and make decisions and realize that what's driving the cost of education is not football practice, it's not band practice it's the personnel. And if you have people who get guaranteed increases regardless of whether or not they do anything well, then that's what drives the cost.
CROWLEY: Let me -- I'll come back and start with you, Senator. We're going to take a quick break here because I want to get down to some of the specifics because we're talking teacher pay here. You started out about talking about respect for teachers. I think I've heard that for 30 years in Washington about how we have to have more respect for teachers, we have to elevate that career choice. And I want to talk a little bit about how you all want to go about doing that. We'll be right back after this break.
CROWLEY: We're back and talking education reform with senators Michael Bennet and Lamar Alexander, as well as Randi Weingarten and Steve Perry.
Thank you all again. Let me start with you, Senator, because you did start out -- I promise you, since "Nation at Risk," and I remember doing a story about "Nation at Risk," and said, you know, if a foreign country had done to our schools what we're doing to our schools, we would have declared war, essentially. Here we are, we are still talking about we have to find a way to make this an elevated career path. How do we do it?
BENNET: Well, I would argue -- I said the other day on the Senate Floor that if the hundred senators in the Senate faced the same odds for their kids that kids in poverty face, I guarantee you, we wouldn't be hanging around the Senate Floor for very long, we would be going home to figure out how to get our kids into the finest schools with faculties that are doing the work that we were talking about earlier.
One of the things that I think we need to do is under and, and this is a positive thing about our country, we need to understand that finding people that are willing to do the same job for 30 years of their life is going to be really hard to do in the 21st Century. We used to do that. We take the best British literature student in her class and we'd make her a teacher for 30 years, because we wouldn't let her do anything else.
That's no longer the case. I'm very interested, as a result, and I've been thinking about how you think about compensation over a seven- or nine-year period of time, you know, in the classroom. Today we've got a system designed with a very low current wage. But we say, if you hang around for 30 -- or if you're there for 30 years, we'll give you a pension for your retirement.
Well that incentive structure may have made sense at one time. It probably makes less sense today for new people that are coming to the profession.
CROWLEY: Do you think that the system, as it currently is, protects bad teachers? Would you admit that?
WEINGARTEN: I think that the system -- I think that right now whereas there's no epidemic of bad teachers, we've got to do a lot better job at the preparation, the support, the nurturing, and then if somebody can't teach, ushering them out. And we have...
CROWLEY: If we're 14th around the world and our...
WEINGARTEN: Wait, wait, let me...
PERRY: It is teachers. We can't just say that we live in a country where we have bad parents.
WEINGARTEN: Let me finish.
CROWLEY: Let me have her just finish.
WEINGARTEN: It's not -- we don't have bad parents. And we don't have an epidemic of bad teachers. What these other countries do is that they do what our new teachers have just told us they want. They support and nurture.
Teaching is not like speed-dating. You can't just plop somebody in and say, do it, and then if they don't get the test scores that one wants, to usher them out of the profession. We have to nurture and prepare.
Having said that, we have to evaluate and we have focus on performance. Steve is right about that. And the AFT has been focusing on how we do evaluations in a way that doesn't shield incompetence, but also doesn't allow management to have an excuse not to manage.
PERRY: The problem with many of us, principals in particular, like I am, is that we spend a year or two sword-fighting with the organizations that protect them to make sure that we have dotted our I's and crossed our T's to get rid of this teacher.
That teacher is responsible on the low end for 120 students. So that teacher is the Algebra I teacher, and she's not very good. Then all of the children who had her for Algebra I do not know what they need to know. We can't get that year back.
So what we need you to do...
WEINGARTEN: Steve, we are doing in Connecticut -- in Connecticut, we are doing the kind of innovation in terms of legislation that actually will help us identify, people are doing a good job, and if they are not, to help them, and if they are still not, to usher them out of the profession.
CROWLEY: Let me interrupt both of you at this point only because, you know, if you're the mother of the child, and the teacher that you want to help, your don't want your child with that teacher that needs help, you want it with a teacher that knows what they are doing.
WEINGARTEN: Right. But, Candy, the issue becomes what's happening right now is that there in the countries that outcompete us, in the schools that do well, it is a joint venture where what I'm suggesting here is that, as a former classroom teacher, you cannot just say to somebody, OK, just do everything we're asking you to do with every single child without help.
And what we're talking about and what Singapore has done so well is that they focus on evaluation and they focus on continuous improvement. That's the kind of stuff that they did, that Michael did in Denver. That's the kind of stuff that we need to do throughout the country and we can do it.
PERRY: Just real quickly, if I could say practically, when I have a teacher, for instance, who falls asleep in class and I try to fire this individual, and it takes me four to six months to fire them, and I have to counsel them and deprive them of the support, that's what we're talking about. We're talking about people not doing their job, and us trying to get rid of them.
WEINGARTEN: But, Steve, we are changing that.
CROWLEY: Let me call a time on this.
WEINGARTEN: We are changing that. And you know that and I know that.
CROWLEY: As you can see, there's always a conflict with the unions versus, you know, what people want to do to get better teachers in. So let's put it on the table, what's out there? I know you all have been working up on Capitol Hill in terms of federal legislation, federal reforms. What's the single best reform you all think is doable at the federal level right now?
ALEXANDER: Well, if you hadn't said federal level, I could have answered that.
ALEXANDER: Because the whole...
CROWLEY: Well, $71 billion, you ought to be doing something with that.
ALEXANDER: Federal spending on elementary and secondary education is about 10 percent of the whole package. And action is in the classroom and in the community. The holy grail of elementary and secondary education is teacher evaluation and principal evaluation.
How do you -- how do you evaluate a good teacher? And especially how do you relate student achievement to teacher performance? We're in the Model T phase of that. We don't know how to do it very well. Michael did it in Denver. BENNET: Not very well but it's getting better.
ALEXANDER: Well, but we tried it in Tennessee, lots of people are trying it. But we need to focus. The Gates Foundation is funding that. Tennessee is moving ahead on it even today as it was 20 years ago. But that's what we need to do to attract and keep the best teachers in the classroom.
I'm not talking about kicking people out. I think it's more important to keep good people in, and to find out who they are and reward them, pay them well, and you have to have differentiated pay and pay some more than others to do that.
CROWLEY: Senator Michael Bennet, Senator Lamar Alexander, Randi Weingarten, thank you, and so much, Steve Perry as well. I have to have you back because I'm not sure we have solutions but we do know what the problems are.
CROWLEY: Yes, we started the conversation anyway. Thank you all so much for joining us.
We'll be right back.