There have been several efforts over the last twenty years to reform the American education system. Each has failed. There have been a few pinpoints of light in particular places, like Michelle Rhee’s four-year chancellorship of the District of Columbia public school system, but they have been sporadic and short-lived. Rhee’s reforms in DC were incredibly effective, but they proved so unpopular with the voters that they threw Mayor Adrian Fenty (D-DC)—and Rhee—out of office after one term. The system has since, predictably, deteriorated.

The broad state- or nation-wide ‘reforms’ have been oriented mostly toward standardized testing and incentive-based funding of schools based on the aggregate outcomes of those tests. In Virginia, we implemented the Standards of Learning (SOL) system back in 1995 to gauge students’ academic performance, and we based the accreditation of our schools on their students’ performance. The system was poorly designed and poorly implemented at the outset, and it resulted in a pervasive ‘teach to the test’ mentality in Virginia’s schools. Most of my teacher friends condemn the SOL’s, and with good reason. I didn’t like them much myself, and I still have many criticisms of the system. Indeed, Governor Jim Gilmore’s (R-VA) poor handling of the SOL’s back in the ’90s is part of why I did not support his failed 2008 run for U.S. Senator.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, a federal law that was crafted by the bipartisan team of then-President George W. Bush (R) and the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), expanded SOL-like programs across the country and tied funding to schools’ academic performance as measured by standardized tests. It passed in 2001 and soon did to the whole country what the SOL’s did to Virginia.

I understand why so many teachers don’t like what these laws have done to education in America, but I also understand why they exist. Before the mid-nineties, Virginia students only needed to pass a sixth grade level test to qualify to graduate high school, and one-quarter of our college freshmen needed serious remedial help before they could proceed with their higher education. Too many students were rubber-stamped through to graduation, whether they had actually earned it or not. In some states, even this rudimentary testing requirement didn’t exist, and people were graduating high school without basic literacy skills.

Our education system was badly broken, but the problem wasn’t that students were insufficiently tested. Too many teachers weren’t doing a good enough job of teaching, the system was oriented toward serving the ‘lowest common denominator,’ and too many teachers and administrators were unwilling to flunk the kids who weren’t performing. Improving the average quality of the teaching and administration staff would have gone a long way toward solving all of these problems, but instead we slapped on a standardized-testing band-aid. Illiterate children usually don’t graduate high school anymore, so that’s an improvement, but the rest of the problems remain largely un-addressed.

It is no surprise why. Rhee attempted to ‘clean house’ in the DC schools by firing under-performing teachers and administrators, and tried to establish employment policies based on skill and ability instead of retrograde union rules and tenure. She and Mayor Fenty pushed hard for real, effective reform—efforts that were opposed at every step by the local and national teachers’ unions and their partisans on the city council. As Fenty and Rhee’s efforts were just beginning to bear fruit, the unions mounted an incredible misinformation campaign, tugged at heart-strings about teacher firings, and helped hand the mayor’s office to the anti-reform candidate.

In other words, it is often political suicide to take on the teachers’ unions. Whenever some big, bad politician tries to change the way our schools operate, the warm, fuzzy cadre of teachers at the National Education Association (NEA) gets upset. Guess which side the voters tend to support.

But let’s not forget that the NEA, despite its name, exists to serve teachers, not to serve students. They work to keep their members employed and paying dues. Real education reform in this country, which would reduce our per-student costs (among the highest in the industrialized world), reduce administrative and support staffing, and demand a higher average level of skill and professionalism from our teachers—simply isn’t compatible with the NEA’s goals.

I had a number of great teachers. I had many more awful ones. The great ones should have been promoted, recognized, and given greater control and responsibility in their classrooms. The bad ones should have been sent to remedial training, given every opportunity to improve, and then been fired if they chose the path of intransigent mediocrity . . . same as what happens in most workplaces. Instead—under union rules, you see—the good and the bad moved up the ranks at the same speed, earned their tenure, and had the opportunity to stay forever. This had the immediate impact of there being too many bad teachers at any given school, but it had more pernicious effects as well. If good teachers can get the same salary, benefits, and job security as their less-skilled peers, then what is the incentive to do a good job? Some percentage of them will stop bothering to be so good. And some percentage of the best teachers will just get fed up with it and leave, having tired of being surrounded by incompetence and dysfunction.

Only the truly passionate teachers—the cream of the crop—will do their best without any regard for the benefits or costs of doing so, and will stick with it despite the constant impediments and mismanagement. I had a few of these during my schooling, and they are the ones I love and respect the most. They are the ones I still remember clearly and think about today. They are the true heroes of American education, the bright lights in the darkness. But we have a system oriented toward stymieing them, when it should be oriented toward supporting them and encouraging their peers to be more like them.

So the SOL’s and the NCLB act were well-intentioned efforts to fix American education, but they were crafted with an eye toward not offending the unions, and that made them too limited to accomplish very much. They force the bad teachers to cover the core elements of what they’re supposed to be teaching . . . which is a good thing and a nominal improvement over the way things were. But they also force the good teachers to teach to the test, which is a bad thing. Some of my most memorable and influential classroom moments occurred when we were straying far from the written curriculum, following the discussion wherever it led. But it’s probably better to have most teachers doing a slightly-below-average job (teaching to the test) than to have a small percentage doing a great job and a large percentage doing an awful job. Things are probably better—at least slightly—under today’s testing regimen than they were before.

But I’m tired of settling for ‘slightly better than it was.’ We need to stop implementing tweaks and half-measures and, instead, we need to address the real problem head-on. We need to support and encourage our best teachers and pay them what they’re worth. We need to guide mediocre teachers toward growth and improvement. And we need to make sure our bad teachers get out of teaching, whether the NEA likes it or not. The current system is a failure. It was spiraling the drain. Stop-gap measures like the SOL’s and the NCLB act have helped to arrest that spiral, they haven’t actually fixed the underlying problems.

A few gutsy leaders have attempted to change things for the better, and they invariably pay the political price for it. Most politicians settle for repeating the NEA-approved line that our schools need more funding, which is absolute nonsense but is unlikely to have bad political repercussions. The truth, of course, is that our schools are better funded than they have ever been before. They receive four times more money per-student (inflation adjusted) than they did a half-century ago. They are better funded on a per-student basis than all but a small handful of other countries around the world—indeed, better funded than many countries that out-perform us academically. Money isn’t the problem; never has been. The problem is that we’re not getting our money’s worth. Our schools are badly managed, and union rules ensure that we’re paying salaries to a lot of people who shouldn’t be there.

We can do better. In fact, if we expect to maintain our national position as an economic powerhouse and a bastion of free government, we must do better. The free market economy and the democratic-republican system of government both rely on a highly educated populace to function properly. Voters have to understand how our political system works, they have to have a good grasp on history, and they have to have critical reasoning skills if we are going to expect them to make prudent decisions at the ballot box. Businesses need workers with technical skills and sound decision-making abilities in order to succeed in the marketplace against our international peers. Judging by who we put in office, and how well our businesses are doing on the international scene, it looks like we’re in big trouble.

Is it too late? Well, it is for the people of Washington, DC, who had the best chance in a generation to fix their schools but promptly fired the people who were trying to make it happen . . . and thus strongly discouraged anybody else from ever trying. But it’s not too late for places with less-entrenched unions, or places with enough people who see the self-serving NEA talking points for what they are. My own home state, the Commonwealth of Virginia, probably still has one more chance to replace the SOL’s with real reform . . . but time is quickly running out. Those who are poorly educated tend to vote for the union cronies who perpetuate the poor education system, which further entrenches that system and ensures that there will be even more poorly-educated voters the next time that elections roll around.

People who have been taught to believe that the schools are under-funded and that’s all that’s wrong with them, and lack the intellectual curiosity to question and investigate that claim for themselves and uncover the truth, will tend to support politicians who will write a big check to the NEA rather those who have real ideas for reform. We’re already seeing the fruits of this poisonous cycle in the quality of our education system, and the general quality (or lack thereof) in government policy across-the-board. It is up to you to break this cycle and demand more from our political leaders—and ourselves. We can still fix our education system, and ultimately our country, but we have to act soon.