Only 32 percent of fourth graders in the United States are proficient in reading. Just 39 percent are proficient in math, according to statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The United States spends over $10,000 annually per student on primary and secondary education; more than almost any other country. But on international assessments which compare performance across the world, 15-year-old Americans rank 25th in math, 17th in science, and 12th in reading.
These statistics keep economist and Harvard professor Roland Fryer up at night. Fryer, the youngest African American to ever receive tenure from Harvard, has devoted his life to improve education in the U.S.
Fryer founded EdLabs at Harvard in 2008. EdLabs are a series of multi-million dollar experiments to discover how to bridge the achievement gap in the United States.
The 34-year-old professor is not without his critics. In 2011, he tested a $75 million incentives program, sparked by Fryer's background in economics. EdLabs paid students at 130 different schools in Dallas $2 to read a book, offered kids up to $50 for higher test scores in New York, and bribed children in Washington, DC to come to school without beating each other up. That experiment didn't work. Why? Fryer says despite having a reward waiting at the finish line, the kids didn't have the tools to accomplish the task at hand.
So what does Fryer believe needs to change to improve education? He boils it down to five main areas:
1. Better teachers, better principals
Fryer believes schools need to find leaders who inspire and are trained to take on the challenge. And teachers with a drive and a passion to help students need the support of formal training and continuous professional development to help them improve their students' reading and math skills. Teachers should achieve performance bonuses and merit pay, and should be constantly evaluated.
2. Increased tutoring or one-on-one sessions
One of the most effective ways to improve education is by giving students personalized attention during tutoring sessions, Fryer said. Devoting more time to one-on-one education increases children's ability to concentrate on the areas that they are struggling with and get feedback on their work. Tutoring should be structured and focused, with the first few minutes for personal conversation, giving the kid a chance to bond with a mentor they can look up to. The rest of the time should be devoted in timed segments to certain subjects.
3. Higher expectations
Fryer advises teachers and administrators to: tell students what is expected of them; have high expectations for attendance rates; demand a 100 percent graduation and college application rate, etc. In addition, Fryer advises schools to send home a school-parent contract. This contract is not enforced, but is used as a tool to explain to parents what the school's expectations are and how they will be achieved. It asks parents to provide a quiet place where students can study at home.
4. Longer school days, longer school year
Extending the time in school means increased time for students to learn. The longer day, longer year directly translates into higher performance.
5. Frequent evaluation
Increased testing and quizzing allow teachers to effectively assess where students are picking up the material and what they are having difficulty understanding. Fryer believes that data should be used to drive instruction. If the students do not comprehend the material, re-teach and re-test.
According to EdLabs' studies, these five areas are critical components of our nation's ongoing efforts to improve education. There are schools that are doing amazing things and making big strides in bridging the achievement gap, Fryer said. Now we need to find ways to share the knowledge.