Manya Whitaker, PhD, Developmental/Educational Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Education; Educational Consultant
Each level of schooling is in need of desperate reform but because education is cumulative, it makes the most sense to start at the beginning while also enacting structural changes. Because students begin school with varying level of readiness, I would suggest making Pre-school required as opposed to optional as it is now. Parents with high education levels are much more likely and able to enroll their children in high quality preschool programs. As a result, their children enter Kindergarten academically and socially ahead of students who did not attend academic preschools. This is the beginning of the achievement gap.
I would also suggest universally high standards for teacher licensure. At present, each state decides on their own qualifications creating a lot of variability between states. More importantly, I would eliminate the loopholes that allow people to become teachers without having gone through accredited teacher preparation programs through which they learn about child development, pedagogy, and curriculum. Every teacher needs to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to be adaptable, responsive, nurturing, and competent.
Finally, I would suggest altering the curriculum in the U.S. Again, this is a state-decided issue so it is difficult to implement reform. Our curricula rarely include physical education, music, art (fine arts and performing arts), sewing,gardening, or other coursework that focuses on skills and not just content acquisition. We are drowning our students in content they deem unrelated to their real lives outside of school so secondary students often disengage. If we can present a more well-rounded and engaging curriculum that is required for everyone (i.e. you MUST take art, PE, music, gardening, etc) throughout K-12 (not just in elementary school), we have a higher likelihood of helping students find an area of interest.
There are of course dozens of more things we can and should do to improve U.S. schools, but these three ideas address a few of the causes of student academic underachievement. I can't wait to see what other people suggest!