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.

Robert Pinsky

ROBERT PINSKY, poet and author, former US poet laureate

Idea: A college meritocracy

Mr. Pinsky writes: Two modest, simple, cost-cutting proposals for improving American education:

1. Give public school students access to the same English and writing teachers as students at top prep schools like Andover, Exeter, St. Mark's, and Marin Country Day School: The teachers I mean hold master of fine arts degrees. MFA graduates who are recommended as good teachers by their MFA programs, where they have taught undergraduate writing courses, should be able to teach Grades 7-12 without presenting the school of education credentials many states require for public school jobs – not required for teaching at the private prep schools.

Right now, poets and fiction writers who complete Boston University's MFA program often teach at those private schools. But a graduate of our program can't hope for a job in Boston's public schools, not even if [my BU colleagues] Leslie Epstein, Louise Glück, Ha Jin, and I write letters affirming that this is a wonderful, effective teacher.

2. Above a certain objective threshold set by an institution (grades, SATs, whatever), make college admissions absolutely random. No consideration of athletic skills or cunning essays or alumni donors in the family or well-roundedness, etc. Education is about education, period, and excellence is about excellence. Of course, the rich, hard-to-get-into schools would have to take the lead: Amherst, Yale, Stanford, and such should set a new standard of seriousness about learning.

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