Public education has long been a pillar in America’s rise to lone global superpower status. While we still hold a tenuous grip the title of “greatest nation on earth,” our steady decline in education, relative to the rest of the world, will be the single largest factor in our fall from the top. Unless we radically change our approach to public education, this issue will be the lead chapter in “The Rise and Fall of the American Republic.” While there are myriad reasons America’s schools are broken, ironically the chief failing is the same as which started the public system in the first place – local control of education. If America is to survive as a superpower in the 21st century and beyond, we must wrest control of the education system from both local school boards and for that matter the states that oversee them.
“We will have a shot at catching up to and really competing with our major European and Asian competitor-nations when we, like they, regard public education as a federal priority and responsibility and not a fifty-state hodgepodge, as to money, goals, effective teaching standards, and curriculum.”
Depending on the standard, and testing data, America has dropped, in comparison to the world, well into the 20’s, if not into the 30’s in world rankings for proficiency in math and reading. Every year, when SAT and ACT test score averages are released, we bemoan dipping scores and celebrate a one or two point bump. The average US SAT Reading/Verbal score in 2008 was 502. The last time the US average was above 510 was 1975 (512). While Math proficiency, at least according to CollegeBoard continues to rise, marginally; relative to the rest of the world, America ranks 31st in advanced math. More disturbingly, the trends between states further exacerbate the disparity in education.
When states were ranked individually, relative to other countries, Massachusetts came in at 17th in the world. The last four US States, Louisiana, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Mississippi ranked behind Serbia, but ahead of Chile and Brazil.
Why is this important? In a global economy, jobs, and employment opportunities, are no longer a geographic issue. Employers are (and exceedingly will be) more inclined to hire with an eye toward their market.
“The good news—and the bad news—for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this more global perspective. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled. …At last summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Splinter, CEO of the Silicon Valley green-tech firm Applied Materials, said that if he were starting from scratch, only 20 percent of his workforce would be domestic. “This year, almost 90 percent of our sales will be outside the U.S.,” he explained. “The pull to be close to the customers—most of them in Asia—is enormous.” Speaking at the same conference, Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate, also lamented this global reality: “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business … American businesses will adapt.” Link
American business will adapt by not only outsourcing jobs overseas, but their business as well. It’s not just the emerging markets, it’s the emerging consumer bases driving demand coupled with a higher educated work force, which coincidentally will work for less compensation than the average American which will drive this flight. American businesses are already starving for highly skilled labor – especially marked by a dearth in engineers, and white collar positions requiring skills in math and science that currently are not being adequately met by the American school system.
So why is local control of schools to blame for our shortcomings? The primary reason is that it does not provide for an equitable distribution of potential education to every student in public school. Depending on zip code and school district where a child is born and/or raised has direct bearing on his or her access to education. For example, a child attending public school in Massachusetts is significantly likely to exceed proficiency test scores in Math and English than a child raised in Mississippi. 17 per cent of Massachusetts 8th
graders score above advanced in Math while only 2 per cent of 8th
graders do in Mississippi. [Source
What we have done is in effect, parceled out education based on the local tax bases subsidizing the schools. Meanwhile, local school boards – many of which are elected positions – determine the learning curriculum that is appropriate for the classrooms based on the community’s mores and values.
In nutshell, if a child is lucky enough to have been raised in an affluent zip code, his or her access to a quality education far exceeds the opportunities afforded to a child, who by circumstances beyond his or her control is raised in a poor school district. But this is further compounded and skewed. An affluent school district may value religion over science – and require textbooks that teach both views in public school which simply serves to further impede a students’ ability to perform well in science. Such a case in Kansas in the 1990’s spawned the Flying Spaghetti Monster
So while we debate the issue of teaching Intelligent Design or Evolution, or should we have school prayer, or not, our children simply pay the price by getting less of an education.
As we climb out of this last recession, one thing that most economists seem to agree on is that it will take several years – at least until 2015 – before unemployment is again below 6 per cent. These experts also agree that the drivers of the economy when the dust settles will look strikingly different than that of the past. It’s a foregone conclusion that most manufacturing jobs will not come back in to the Rust Belt, but the sectors that will drive the economy in the future will be technological-based requiring sound math and science skills – skills that are not currently being supplied enough to keep up with domestic demand.
One answer to this problem is to nationalize education. Eliminate local school boards and state departments of education and Federalize the entire education system. Distribute resources for schools, and teachers equitably throughout the nation and set a common standard so that children, regardless of their fortune, have equal access to quality education. While my personal preference, I think there are many among us, especially on the Right, that would view this as an affront to their liberties and their ability to make their own choices for their children and accuse the proponents of such a plan of communism, or maybe just socialism.
So an alternative proposal, rather than just rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, is to abolish the entire public school system altogether. Get rid of the Departments of Education – from the Federal level down to the State and local boards and outsource the entire endeavor. Sound crazy? In a way, but give me two more minutes.
Captains of industry are recognizing a need and shortcoming in the American education system and are beginning to pump vast resources in to schools, not just out of altruistic ideals, but recognizing that the product American schools are providing to their future business well being is not meeting their requirements. The Gates Foundation
provides nearly $400 million annually directly and indirectly to better American schools. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, recently donated $100 million
targeted to the failing Newark Public School system.
Corporate philanthropy is the new chic, but savvy business leaders will expect a return on investment, i.e., improved test scores and smarter entry level workers. Some on the Right have called for an abolishment of the Education Department and have long pressed for charter schools and school vouchers as parachutes for children in failing school districts. One way or another, the current construct of public education is failing. It is time for a radical revamp of the system. While I’d prefer nationalizing education, I’d be OK with letting business take over the whole endeavor as well – they can hardly screw it up anymore than we’ve already done.