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How to Fix a Broken Education System in the United States?

How to Fix a Broken Education System in the United States?

By Scott Callahan

Living in an education system often made incredibly complex, nuanced, and divisive, and after decades as a teacher, and with the mentorship and support of so many leaders before me, I have a proposed solution to fixing our fundamentally broken education system in this country.

Before arriving at potential solutions, naturally, we must first contend with facts and realities. Though this article is opinion-based, we cannot engage in conversation and critique about education in this country without examining the history of education first. We know that our first public school institutions and systems were designed to segregate primarily by class, and secondarily, by race/ethnicity. We know that pattern still exists today, in 2024. NPR cites in 2022 that our schools are still highly segregated, stating in the opening of their article, “The U.S. student body is more diverse than ever before. Nevertheless, public schools remain highly segregated along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines,” (Carrillo & Salhotra, 2022). In 2022, 387 years after the first public school in the United States, and student experiences combined with data are still telling the story of segregation by class, race, and ethnicity in this country. So, in 2024, before searching for solutions, we must contend with what many don’t wish to- that is to say the system is and has always been fundamentally functional for a few, and intentionally broken and functioning with its intended outcome for many. That marginalization continues today. The comfort in that status quo hides behind the guise of white supremacist societal structures, upholding current power dynamics, the chokehold of money and funding on politicians and lawmakers, and much more that is challenging to separate specific educational elements from good public policy in general. All that being said, acknowledged, and hopefully leaving all of us educators as very uncomfortable with accepting that reality continuing, what solutions exist?

As with most proposed solutions, there is the ‘thing’ of it, the structural components we can hope and act to change while acknowledging we are a part of the abovementioned system, and then the cultural component of the change. I would argue that at different times, across different areas of the country, initiatives attempting to improve the system of public education have integrated elements of each of these structural and cultural shifts, but not often both together, and certainly with very few examples of each being sustained. So, in recognition of the challenges we face as educators, what can be done? Transparently, the structural side of change will always be easier for people and systems, because it ignores the truly uncomfortable questions we often refuse to ask ourselves. Structurally, to fix education, those in positions of influence, bargaining units, disrupters, and all the way down to the first-year classroom teachers, need to advocate for a few simple things.

Better compensation packages

2024

Simply put, teachers aren’t paid enough for the responsibilities of the role. The system is built on the foundation of unpaid labor. There are thousands of articles arguing back and forth about compensation. But the reality remains that in most places in the country, one income earner making a teaching salary simply means you are barely making ends meet in 2024. The National Education Association cites starting new teacher salaries at an average of $42,844, and teacher salaries at an average of $66,745, and when adjusting for inflation, teachers are making $3,644 less than they were ten years ago. The National Association of Colleges and Employers cites college graduates with a Bachelor’s degree in 2022 obtaining employment with a starting average salary of $60,028. That’s $17,184 more than the average new teacher starting salary. NACE also shows that the field you choose matters when it comes to salary- no new information there for educators. More on that concern to come. For example, the same article indicates that a computer science major graduating with a Bachelor’s degree could expect to earn up to $95,000 upon first employment, $50,156 more than a teacher beginning their career. The computer science graduate could earn more than what two new teachers earn. I’ve yet to hear the argument that other earners in fields other than education who are beginning their careers earn too much. 95k annually at year one of a career is more than many teachers will retire with as an annual salary after 25 years plus giving service to education in this country. I cannot overstate this simple metric- pay teachers more. And not more as in, COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) more. Pay teachers more as in; commensurate with other fields who are earning significantly more money.

2025

Along with better pay compensation, teachers deserve better benefit packages. Repeat all that’s said above with the lens of benefits offered and provide better benefits without sacrificing increased pay. And yes, mental health benefits should be included in this conversation as non-negotiable.

Better educational packages

    1. A rhetorical question- how is it possible nearly every mission and vision statement from public education institutions states educators’ service to promote ‘life-long learners’, and we make the process of educators being lifelong learners themselves so challenging? We need to make obtaining education for anyone who works in a school system much easier, nearly affordable if not completely free, and accessible.
    2. Student loan forgiveness should happen after three years of continuous service in education for anyone in any role working in a school.
    3. Anyone working in a school system in any role should have access to higher education (Bachelor’s, Master’s, Associate’s, and yes Doctorate’s) free of cost and/or via direct bill-paying options to the system. It isn’t controversial. We should be able to pursue our own education goals without having to pay out of pocket, take additional loans, etc. There is a clear connection to pay here. In my current system, if I were to go and study for my Doctorate degree, the billing options I have are still nearly all out of pocket, tens of thousands of dollars for the institutions that have agreements with my district, some reimbursement, very few direct billing options, and when all said and done, I would earn around $2,000 more annually for obtaining that Doctorate. That is unconscionable.
    4. Stop wasting time with the requirements for teachers to ‘maintain’ their educational practice and require some sort of CEU, college credits, additional degrees, etc., and make the teachers pay for it. If you have the requirement to continue learning, pay for them to go study, and allow them choice in what they wish to learn. Or remove the requirement altogether.

Better performance evaluations

Anticipating this point to be controversial amongst educators, we simply need better evaluation metrics for us all

Accountability and transparency need to be fundamental. From an instructional lens, many districts in this country use systems to evaluate performance that were not developed by educators or meant to be implemented for evaluating education and/or instruction. We attach teacher performance to student performance; we use standardized testing results as factors in effective teaching while ignoring other measures of mastery and learning. The evaluation systems simply don’t always effectively capture the quality of the educator, or the lack of quality of the educator. And that is ignoring the logistics of observations. The next time you have an observation, ask the observer how many observations they are expected to do in that quarter- then ask yourself if the evaluator is offering mentoring and coaching with fidelity to improve instructional practices with teachers based on that number of observations. The systems of evaluation are generally performative. I counsel teachers often who struggle because of what is deemed a ‘poor’ or ‘ineffective’ observation. On average, an untenured teacher might have four observations in a year, one per quarter. On average, most legislation requires students to be in school for a minimum of 180 days of the year. On average, most teachers teach five lessons a day. On average, those lessons are likely between 45-60 minutes. Doing some rough estimates, that means that a teacher is instructing students for a minimum of 54,000 minutes, evaluated on 240 of those 54,000 minutes (0.4% of their total instructional minutes in the year), and placing judgement on their performance as a teacher on those 240 minutes. Of course, it’s ridiculous, but it makes sense if your yearly performance indicators are attached to those 240 minutes. Hence, why the system all becomes performative, and not about instructing students and learning. Get rid of these evaluation systems and adopt better ones, or continue to use them, but adjust the practice in how they are used.

Differentiate evaluations by role

We are all educators, but we are not all the same educators. When we teach students effectively, we cannot teach them all the same, because no students are identical. This is the definition of equity. Teaching a student Shakespeare who reads two grade levels above the rest of the class is not the same as teaching Shakespeare to a student who reads two grade levels below. And yet, we don’t apply that same action to teachers themselves. I would invite us all to lean into some discomfort in our field here, but the reality is that teaching is different, and educators are different. If I am an educator of 25 4th graders in elementary, my instruction (academically, socio-emotionally, behaviorally, instructional duties, etc.) is fundamentally different than an educator of 28 11th Or 12 preschoolers. Or a self-contained special education classroom. Or a related arts music class. Or a speech pathologist’s case load. And so on. Each of those educators have very differing educational requirements and potentially, educational degrees and experiences that coincide with the roles in which they instruct. And yet, for the most part, we are all placed together as one line item on a salary scale. This is why it is effectively much more difficult to hire special educators, as an example, than general educators. We need to differentiate evaluation by role, and, compensation. If our responsibilities look different, so should our pay.

Get rid of tenure

It’s unnecessary. We have already established that evaluation systems are generally performative, and I’m yet to meet a teacher who has not been granted tenure after whatever number of years and observations their district requires. If we want to be paid commensurately like other fields, then we don’t need to adopt policies like tenure which virtually no other field has. Admittedly, in my personal experience, I’ve seen tenure do much more to uphold teachers who have been in the field and promoting more inequity for students, than protecting teachers from losing their ‘academic freedom’ to teach. Combine its removal with better evaluation systems and there really shouldn’t be a strong case at all for tenure.

Better marketing strategies

Very clearly, acting on the other suggestions listed here will inevitably recruit more people to the field of education.

Pew Research cites 85,057 college degrees conferred in education in 2019/2020 school year. That’s 19% less than in 2000/2001. Though not necessarily a requirement for new teachers to have degrees in education, we could reasonably assume that having a four-year degree in education entering the field of education would be a net positive for students.

Young people entering college and leaving with degrees simply are not choosing education as viable options for their careers. We need to market the career as changemakers, foundational to all other career options as we teach and expose children to the world they will experience as adults. The argument is constantly made that we don’t have enough staff to effectively operate schools. If the data continues to trend as it is, year on year we will have less teachers until the system becomes unsustainable.


 

Now that we have some proposed structural changes that I would argue offer a more equitable and effective education system, we must return to the harder path to forge- that of the cultural shifts that must take place to complement the structural shifts. Herein lies the discomfort because underlying all the points above, and the general tenor of our current political and societal climate in 2024, is the simple notion that our system remains broken, purely because we don’t value education in this country. It is unfortunately that uncomplicated.

Yes, we say we value education. We say that young people are our most important investment in the future. We say that education is the path out of poverty, towards equity and opportunity. But do we, in the United States, as a society, in 2024, truly value education? Such that, no matter the obstacle, barrier, or challenge, we devote our best human and financial resources to education so we can see actionable, observable, measurable return on that investment, in a cultural sense? I think that question is very much up for debate.

To shine a bright a light on the question, if we did value education as we claim we do, we could point to our balance sheets as an indicator of that investment. Not solely from a US Department of Education point of view, but of how we compensate and treat our teachers, as indicated above. Think back to the celebration of essential workers during the COVID pandemic in 2020. Society, leaders, stakeholders; they were all quick to publicly laud the contributions of these essential workers during a time when society needed them most. But they were always essential. Pre pandemic included. Teachers are no different. And yet, how many of those essential workgroups can point to actionable change in their roles and organizations since being celebrated as essential? Does society truly value them as essential? I would argue we are all essential. But the culture of a system, or society, reinforces that ideal, or it doesn’t.

The harder route to fixing education in this country is the cultural shift in society to recognize the value of education, and in turn educators. Ask yourselves, your district leaders, your school board members, your elected officials; do we (org, district, individual, society, etc.) value education? Teachers? Learning? Curiosity? Equity? Healthy debate and critique? How do we show that value? Do we strive to make education accessible for all? Do we include all learners and celebrate all their diversity? Do we eliminate barriers to those who wish to access education but cannot? Do we demonstrate value in education by providing high quality service to preschoolers up through higher education? We should be able to point to action, literal outcomes achieved or not, for each of those questions and not just platitudes. The reality is we currently live in a society that cuts public library funding to provide more money to policing communities. That’s the culture we uphold, and by default- value. It is antithetical to what we say about how we value education. This value is somewhat harder to measure but there are some metrics we can analyze. One can assume that if a society values education, more of their population is educated. US News and World Report cites countries with the most educated populations in 2023. Japan, Switzerland, and Germany round out the top three, with the United States ranking 20th in the world, with by far the largest population (333 million), and highest GDP overall ($25.5 trillion) of the countries in the top twenty. If more of a country’s population is educated, we can assume that the country has a well-developed public education system. The same source cites Sweden, Finland, and Denmark as the top three countries in the world with the best developed education systems in 2023, the United States in 16th place. If a country has a well-developed education system, we can make the assumption the country would compensate its teachers as high earners in its society. Luxembourg, Germany, and Switzerland top that list of teacher salaries in 2024, with the United States having the 12th best teacher salaries. And if we say we value education, have an educated population, who maintains a well-developed public education system, that pays their teachers based on the value they assign to their role in society, we may assume higher quality of life indicators for the population of the country. Though it’s possible to debate how quality of life indicators are measured, most would place education in that calculus. I surely would, and the countries that top that list from the same US News and World Report source are Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. The rest of that top ten for 2024 is Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand. Following the top ten is Belgium, Austria, United Kingdom, Japan, Ireland, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Singapore, Poland, and then in 23rd place, the United States. Debating quality of life or not, what do all these countries have in common that rank above the United States? Better education systems. Why better education systems? I would argue because they value education more, better, fund it better, and education is a cultural core value to their society. And it simply is not here in the United States.

Until we decide to change it. My hope is that we do that together, and with the sense of urgency that our young people deserve.


Scott Callahan Scott Callahan is an equity-minded educator and facilitator working in the field of education since 2006.

Resources:

Association, N. E. (n.d.). Educator pay data. NEA. https://www.nea.org/resource-library/educator-pay-and-student-spending-how-does-your-state-rank

Carrillo, S., & Salhotra, P. (2022, July 14). The U.S. student population is more diverse, but schools are still highly segregated. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/07/14/1111060299/school-segregation-report

First Public School in America. (n.d.). https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/first-public-school-america/

Schaeffer, K. (2022, September 27). A dwindling number of new U.S. college graduates have a degree in Education. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/09/27/a-dwindling-number-of-new-u-s-college-graduates-have-a-degree-in-education/

Teacher salary by country 2024. (n.d.). https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/teacher-salary-by-country

These countries have the most educated populations | U.S. news. (n.d.). https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/rankings/educated-population

These are the countries with a well-developed public education system. (n.d.-a). https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/rankings/well-developed-public-education-system

The countries with the highest quality of life. (n.d.-a). https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/rankings/quality-of-life 

VanDerziel, S. (2023, September 14). Top salaries for college graduates. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/svanderziel/2023/09/13/top-salaries-for-college-graduates/?sh=fad577c6283f 

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