Ideas for a better world in 2011

To start the new year off right, the Monitor asked various thinkers around the world for one idea each to make the world a better place in 2011. We talked to poets and political figures, physicists and financiers. The results range from how to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world to ways to revamp Hollywood.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

CHESTER E. FINN JR., senior fellow, the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Idea: Make students free agents

Mr. Finn writes: How to make serious and rapid progress on education reform? The system is famously change-resistant and money is tight, so major breakthroughs depend on bold actions.

Four controversial moves would make a big difference:

•Let principals really run their schools – including all personnel decisions, budget decisions, curriculum, etc. Get school boards and downtown bureaucracies (and burdensome union contracts) out of the way. Stop wasting scarce money on them.

•Attach all the money to students (with sums varying according to their needs) and let them choose their schools, so that the revenues of the schools they select – district, charter, virtual, even private – depend entirely on attracting students.

•Hold everyone – students, teachers, principals, school board members, etc. – to account for their academic results, measured against new multi-state "common core" standards. Reward (with diplomas, gold stars, college admissions, bonuses, promotions, etc.) those that succeed. Intervene big-time in those that fail.

•Make results transparent so that parents, taxpayers, and elected officials can see how every school is doing against those standards and other key measures, such as retention and graduation rates, educating challenging kids, etc.

Much grumbling and pushback will greet these changes – and political prudence says don't even try. But then nothing will change and mediocrity will endure.

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