American education

How to fix public education in America

March 4, 2014: 8:45 AM ET

The U.S. spends more on education than most countries, but the private sector may have more to offer.

By Sanjay Sanghoee

140219155316-education-tech-bubble-chalkboard-620xa

FORTUNE -- America is at war with itself. Tension between the economic classes, highlighted by venture capitalist Tom Perkins' recent remarks, are escalating. But what we need are solutions, not words. Recriminations only polarize us further and make it harder to work collectively toward the common goal of prosperity.

We also need to get to the root of the problem. Before we can aspire to a secure economic future, we need to provide a better education for our children first.

A strong early education increases a student's likelihood of attending a good college and can lead to better jobs, more retirement savings, and reduced dependence on government help. That can enable our government to cut spending and taxes, which helps the economy. It also enables employers to pay higher wages since a better-educated workforce is more productive and profitable. It should be easy to see how this benefits everyone and makes America more competitive.

MORE: Even 'good' debt isn't free

While there are many good private schools out there, they are usually expensive and have limited space. Public schools are more affordable and can accommodate more students, but are uneven in performance. That creates an opportunity for the government and private sector to work together to upgrade the public education system, both for profit and as an investment in our future.

The U.S. spends more on education than almost any other developed nation. We spent $11,193 per primary student and $12,464 per secondary student in 2010, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and total spending was 7.3% of GDP. Despite this, American students lagged their international counterparts, ranking 36th in mathematics, 28th in science, and 24th in reading globally.

This could be because of misallocation of funds in the public school system, ineffective teaching methods, or ill-conceived syllabi, but whatever the reasons, it is clear that the government has failed to provide an educational system that works.

The private sector is generally more efficient and good at finding innovative solutions to difficult problems. We do not need to spend more money to improve the quality of education -- other nations are able to do more with less. What we need is a rethink of our ideas and efficient allocation of resources to produce the best possible results.

The areas where the private sector can make an impact are: 1) Developing and testing new educational techniques without the delays inherent in government bureaucracy 2) Exploring technology to customize the learning experience, increase interactivity between teachers and students, encourage peer-to-peer education through social media, lower the cost of delivery, and 3) Measuring the impact of those techniques with statistical analysis of test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment, employment, income level, and other metrics over time. (True, the government already measures some of these aspects but the results are exposed to politics.) The private sector can administer all these more effectively and apolitically than the government.

MORE: Why airlines are running out of pilots

Some companies currently doing this are Intel (INTC), through its $200 million commitment to Science and Math Teacher's Initiative, which provides training to teachers so that their students can be more competitive in technical fields; 2U, a technology company that facilitates online education for universities -- an approach that could be applied to earlier education and bring down costs for students as well as the government; and Google (GOOG), through its recent investment in Renaissance Learning, a company that uses cloud computing to help teachers tailor lesson plans to maximize student performance. Unlike the public sector, private companies are positioned to develop new technologies for education and can serve a complementary role.

So the good news is that the private sector is already in the game, but to make great public education a reality in America, it needs to play a bigger role.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, as well as at hedge fund Ramius. Sanghoee sits on the Board of Davidson Media Group, a mid-market radio station operator. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is also the author of two thriller novels. Follow him @sanghoee.

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.