Commentator Robert Reich
Commentator Robert Reich - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Philadelphia was the place to be last week for education professionals. The National Education Association was having its annual meeting there. A slew of presidential hopefuls made appearances, and the 9,000 delegates debated what the association's policy positions ought to be — including No Child Left Behind.

The White House is pushing Congress to reauthorize the president's signature education plan before it automatically expires in September. And while they're at it, commentator Robert Reich has some changes he'd like to see included.

Robert Reich: Worried about American competitiveness? Worry about our schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to fix our broken system of K-12 education by setting higher standards and requiring lots of tests. But the system's still broken.

Of course, some testing is necessary to measure whether students are learning. But the No Child Left Behind Act has overdone it, turning our nation's classrooms into test-taking factories where the curriculum is how to take tests rather than how to think.

The one thing we do know about successful classrooms is they require talented and dedicated teachers. And that's the other problem with the Act. It hasn't included enough money to pay salaries needed to attract the best and brightest into K-12 teaching — especially into classrooms populated mainly by poor and working-class kids.

When I went to school, talented women didn't have many career paths other than becoming teachers. But then American society changed, and women could become almost anything they wanted to be.

As a result, between 1964 and 2000, the share of college-educated women who chose a career in teaching dropped from 50 percent to just 15 percent, according to government data.

Many men as well as women go into teaching for its non-monetary rewards. But the law of supply and demand is not repealed at the schoolhouse door. If we want talented people in our classrooms, we have to pay for them.

The overseers of financial capital — investment bankers and private-equity partners — are raking in millions. But the overseers of our most precious human capital, our children, are barely keeping up with what they earned decades ago, adjusted for inflation.

Message to Congress: Reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, but cut back on the tests and include more money for teachers. Message to teachers' unions: If you want higher salaries, you're going to have to accept merit pay. Great teachers should be generously rewarded. Lousy ones should be sacked.

Ryssdal: Robert Reich was Secretary of Labor for President Clinton. He's teaching at the University of California Berkeley now.