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How to do it? Well, there is one simple, time-tested method. Work harder. Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Malcolm Gladwell found that behind many supposedly natural-born talents like musical ability lay lots of practice--by his calculations, about 10,000 hours of practice. U.S. schoolchildren spend less time in school than their peers abroad. They have shorter school days and a shorter school year. Children in South Korea will spend almost two years more in school than Americans by the end of high school. Is it really so strange that they score higher on tests?
If South Korea teaches the importance of hard work, Finland teaches another lesson. Finnish students score near the very top on international tests, yet they do not follow the Asian model of study, study and more study. Instead they start school a year later than in most countries, emphasize creative work and shun tests for most of the year. But Finland has great teachers, who are paid well and treated with the same professional respect that is accorded to doctors and lawyers. They are found and developed through an extremely competitive and rigorous process. All teachers are required to have master's degrees, and only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted to the country's teacher-training programs. The contrast with the U.S. is stark. Half of America's teachers graduated in the bottom third of their college class.
Bill Gates has spent about $5 billion trying to research and reform American education. I asked him, if he were running a school district and could wave a magic wand, what he would do. His response: hire the best teachers. That's what produces the best results for students, more than class size or money or curriculum. "So the basic research into great teaching, that's now become our biggest investment," he says. One study estimates that if black students had a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row, that would be enough to close the black-white test-score gap.
There are many more ideas, many of them worthwhile and worth trying, but you can get lost in the details of the education debate. These two seem simple--work more and get better teachers. Yet implementing them is anything but simple. They bump up against an education system that is deeply resistant to change and teachers' unions that jealously guard their prerogatives. All the specific measures that would allow students to work more and good teachers to be identified and rewarded--more days, longer hours, merit pay--are mostly opposed by the teachers' unions and other guardians of the status quo.
When you get depressed by the obstacles to reforming the educational bureaucracy, you can get excited by the meta-reformers on the outside who are trying to revolutionize the system.
Take Sal Khan, who accidentally created what might well be a new way of teaching. Seven years ago, the MIT graduate was helping his cousin, who lived across the U.S., with her math homework. When scheduling got difficult, a friend suggested he put the diagrams and equations he had drawn on YouTube so she could access them. Five years later, Khan has produced 3,000 videos teaching mostly math and science that have been viewed 80 million times!