It was not too many decades ago that American public schools were the envy of the world. Delegations of educators from around the globe came to study our elementary and secondary schools. No more. Now the tide is going in the other direction. We are quietly sending groups of educators to study what is going on in Finland, Singapore and the numerous countries whose schools are more effectively engaging the hearts and minds of their young.

There can be little doubt that teaching, particularly in America’s public schools, is getting more and more difficult. Children show up in the classroom with more problems and less self-discipline. The origin of this situation is not the school, but the American home, where over 30 percent of the children are born out-of-wedlock to single mothers, mothers who struggle alone to put food on the table and a roof over the heads of their children. Then there are the many children who lose their fathers through separation, divorce or desertion. The result is an increasingly large pool of students with no or weak authority figures in their lives and frail support systems at home. For the classroom teacher, this translates into a huge chunk of their instruction time devoted to what is euphemistically called “classroom management.”

This “management” issue is confounded by the fact that the teacher’s traditional authority has been enormously compromised by legal restraints and by the students’ rights movement. The once frightening prospect of “being sent to the office,” is now a student’s victory strut to the desk of the assistant principal, whose job is to mollify the student and keep him in school. The worst outcome of suspension from school sends off alarm bells in the superintendent of school’s office. His job is to keep the lid on things and keep “the body count” (enrolled students) high in order to ensure the dollars keep coming from the state capital. All of this leaves the classroom teacher defenseless, a lion tamer without gun, whip or chair. Meanwhile, politicians and teacher union bosses are promoting legislation to mandate that restless and reluctant students stay in school until 17 and 18 years of age.

The inability of teachers to make real work demands on students, plus the chaotic environment that characterizes so many of our schools, is the real story behind America’s embarrassing academic achievement scores. Teachers who cannot demand that homework be done or who cannot expect parents and administrators to back them up and who must instruct in disordered classrooms are bound to reap mediocre results. It is these conditions which are the fuel behind the growing call for fundamental school reform.

The cry for school reform as a long history in the US, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the public took serious notice. President Reagan commissioned a study of our public school that produced a scathing report entitled “A Nation at Risk.” In vivid language, the report claimed that our national well-being was deeply threatened by the failure of our schools to prepare students for the realities of modern life. Besides getting the attention of many in the public, the report put elementary and secondary schooling on the nation’s political agenda. Since then every American president has declared himself “the education President”. Also, lesser politicians at the state and national levels have picked up the cry of “school reform”.

Teacher unions, which once tended to focus on local educational issues, saw the handwriting on the chalkboard and became major actors on the political scene — almost exclusively on the side of Democratic politicians. Together, the unions and their heavily supported Democrat lawmakers busied themselves passing legislation and pouring more and more public monies into our schools. In the meantime, these laws have made it nearly impossible to get rid of even the most obviously incompetent teachers and discouraged rewarding truly outstanding teachers. Union rules, such as “last hired, first fired” rule the profession. All this in the name of school reform.

The result of all this dubious reform activity has been a huge growth in our per pupil expenditure with largely negative results. While all this activity and financial largesse was going on in the name of students, the real agenda was the power of unions representing teachers, administrators, school counselors, nurses and cleaning and maintenance workers. The solitary classroom teacher and her pupils were lost in the shuffle. As the reform-minded, first-term governor of New Mexico characterized the situation, it is “pork before kids”.

In their frustration with their limping schools Americans are beginning to see through the unions’ phony school reform and their bought-and-paid-for politicians. In their place is emerging a more learning-focused and pro-parent reform agenda. A case in point is the state of Florida and the reform agenda of recently-retired Governor Jeb Bush. In 1999, when Bush assumed office, Florida’s public schools were among the worst in the nation. Thirteen years later, they are among the nation’s best. Five reforms are the keys to the improvements in students’ achievement scores. First, Florida started grading schools and not just students. Grades from A to F are awarded based on students’ academic progress and proficiency. Extra monies go to superior schools and children are allowed to transfer out of failing schools.

Second, the state ended “social promotion”, a feel-good strategy which places a student’s self-esteem ahead of his achievement. Third, Florida has opened up the teaching profession to a broadened spectrum of talent and not just to graduates from approved teacher education programs. Fourth, teachers whose students pass certain tests not longer simply get a smile from the principal or a note from a grateful parent. They get real dollars through a merit-pay system.

Fifth and key, Florida has instituted parental choice. Parents now have a greater say in the education of their children through state vouchers which allow them to choose among public, private, charter and even online schools. While only a first step at breaking the near-monopoly of the teacher unions over the education of the nation’s children, Florida’s reform is, nevertheless, a dramatic first step to true reform.

American education has a long road back to respectability. Educators and parents must wean children from their pleasure-driven pursuits of television and other escapist entertainment. Schools should be cleansed of middling and burnt-out teachers and staffed with high quality professionals. However, curbing the corrupting power of the teacher unions and allowing parents greater control of the education of their children is the essential first step.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at

Kevin Ryan is a retired professor, living at the edge of Boston and of sanity. He was once a high school English teacher, but found the work too hard and became a professor of education....