Redoing Education

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.
This is hardly a new idea.  Jonathan Wolfmann said as much on
                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.
“The world–and the United States–are wildly uneven when it comes to the ratio of top-scoring math students. A total of 26 countries separate the top-ranking state, Massachusetts, and the last, Mississippi”

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.
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6 Responses to Redoing Education

  1. Anonymous says:

    It's true that local control has gone haywire. But, being in the trenches (so to speak!) day in and day out as an elementary school teacher in an urban public school district, I've seen another "industry" take hold of our kids and effectively shove them through the cracks…that industry is none other than the teacher's union. Every day, I walk down the halls of my dilapidated school and pass by teachers who, in my humble opinion, should most definitely NOT be working with children. They're either burned out and cranky, or they were just born that way. No matter the reason for their constitution or ineffectiveness, their students are the ones who suffer. It is a travesty that terrible teachers are being protected from losing their jobs on a daily basis. Seen Waiting for Superman??? If schools were run like businesses, then teachers would not be granted the golden tenure on the first day of their third school year with a district. Though highly controversial with the unions(I wonder why!), merit pay is what most of the country is subjected to. That and actually keeping one's job. In education, a teacher can squeak by with shoddy evaluations and as long as he/she is not let go during the probationary period (due to ineffective administration, union support, contract loopholes), he/she can remain in that teaching position indefinitely. It is damn near impossible to get rid of a failing teacher. Administrators with the best of intentions are pulled from too many corners and quite frankly do not have the time to commit to the grueling process of firing a teacher. The more I see this unfair treatment of our children perpetuated, the more I realize that charter schools (good charter schools) truly do have the children at the heart of their work. Food for thought!

  2. Very interesting! I recently retired after having taught 35 years in (mostly) special education (including 8 years with mainstreamed blind and visually impaired students at the county level and 2 years in a private school for L.D. kids)- in 3 states. I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of public education from the inside as both a teacher and a parent. The terrible teachers should be fired- BUT…most of the administrators I have worked under entered my classrooms only once or twice a year when they were required to write an observation report! Some of them had only a passing acquaintance with the English language, and few of them understood my field or the students and subjects I taught. I question whether they were competent to decide my, or any of my colleagues' career future. If not for the unions, the petty quirks of some of these supervisors would have led to the wrong teachers being dismissed. To say nothing of nepotism and political favoritism in the selection of new hires.One of the basic problems with public education is that bright college graduates expect a higher standard of living to result from their years of academic toil than can be had on the salary of a first (or fifth) year teacher.

  3. Sean Asbury says:

    This from a friend on Facebook: Okay, Sean, let me start by saying that children are not born into equal circumstances. The students who I teach enter school much lower than a child with educated parents. Studies have been done that show a 3 year old from educatedparen…ts already has a higher vocabulary than an adult from a low socioeconomic background. That being said, providing a cookie cutter education for all children would not provide equality. These students actually need more than their more privileged peers. Unfortunately, bringing a business mentality or more government into schools would only mess things up even more, as these people have no background whatsoever in education, and they would try to run it like a business. Charter schools only work in a neighborhood school where there is already parent involvement, which means any school would work in those neighborhoods. Yes…there are bad teachers out there, but most work their butts off each day trying to inspire children who quite often don't want to be inspired. We are cut down by a media who doesn't understand how to read test results, yelled at by parents who don't want their child held accountable, given more and more paperwork and testing (which takes away from instruction time) from administration, and our hands are completely tied. We can't even hold a child back if they haven't attended school all year if the child's parent wants them passed to the next grade. Also…fyi…there are national educational standards for each subject area that are to be followed by all public schools, and this is how we design our curriculum. This is not to say that I don't want to see change. We need change, but parents and students need to be held accountable just as much as schools and teachers. We are all in this together. Sorry if I rambled a bit…I just think most people would be shocked if they spent even just a week in a public school and saw what we see each day.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Fundamentally, the US continues to fall further back on a number of eduational metrics (not necessarily the most relevant metrics, I might add) because funadmentally, the vast majority of Americans are only willing to pay lip service to education. When we pay new teachers a starting salary that's just over the poverty line…is it any wonder why we can't attract the best teachers? When they get abused in the classroom – day after day – with little support from the "system", is it any surprise why the best teachers leave? yes, I realize there are many senior teachers who are over-paid for what they do…but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the new college grads that are coming out with new and exciting skills to convey to their students…the teachers that are still excited about teaching. They soon get slapped down, disallusioned and eventually leave teaching (for example) when they realize they can get an online law degree and make 10X what they make in teaching. Just what this world needs…another lawyer. I had to laugh when i listened to Obama's (I voted for him, by the way) speech regarding science, math and technology in this country…he doesn't have a clue what the problem is. When I look out over my engineering classes at UMd, and see mostly foreign students…it clearly hits home that most American kids have abandoned math, science and engineering as being too hard for what they will make. In a free market economy, be prepared to get what you pay for… You wanna pay teachers crap wages? Treat them like sheet (in many schools)? Then don't expect the best to last very long. You wanna pay engineers 5X less than what a salesman makes? Then don't expect to attract the brightest, most innovative kids to that field. They're not stupid, and most go where the money is. Compounding all this is…corporations and share holders don't care about the future. They may pay lip service to long term investments, etc…but the reality is, if you're not turning a profit in a year or two, that effort will be discontinued. This is absolutley stiffling to innovation. This impacts the number of scientists and engineers corportations hire, and their degree (education). Back when i graduated, every major corporation in this country had active R&D labs lookings at the next engineering break through. Not anymore. Most corporate labs have long since been closed…further erroding the need for engineers with advanced degrees….and further erroding the development of new products this country turns out. Chinese and Indian students use to come to this country for education and ultimately, ended up staying (everybody that I graduated from @Cornell during this period, stayed in this country after graduation)…helping to fend off the brain drain/decline. But now, the career opportunities are best back in their own country of origin. So they come here for 4-8 years, and then go back home….ultimately, to compete against this country. YIKES! Ask yourself – what does this country make anymore? The bulk of American kids want to major in business (an easy major) so that they can learn how to market and sell services, or goods that aren't even made in this country. There's much more money to be made selling and marketing crap to people that don't need, or can't afford all the crap we try to sell to them…. No, the real problems are much deeper than simply test scores.

  5. Sean Asbury says:

    I've been meaning to circle back to this post and the comments made. First off – Thanks Amy, Lydia and Debby for dedicating their lives to education and our students. I also really really appreciate you all taking the time to one, read my thoughts, and two to provide your perspectives.The last post was made by a person I know as "slapshot" from the Baltimore Sun sports board – I appreciate your comments as well!You all highlight, from different perspectives, the problems with American education – from unions, to poor administration, to the lack of parental involvement in child development and preparing children, at home, for success in the classroom, and lastly, how our education system is ill equipped for an economy that does not produce anything – beyond weapons which I can say, we still do pretty well…My point is that our country is at a proverbial "tipping point" and the number one component to addressing it is the value we place on education. Slapshot is correct – we don't give education the importance it deserves, nor do we educate children to prepare them well for math and science as that is not where $$ are being invested in the private sector. Every immigrant that comes to America, studies a science discipline, and returns to his or her country for job opportunities is a brain drain in this country. Some might say – let's stop educating them then! That genie is out of the bottle – as we continue down this path, we will see that foreign minds will no longer need to come to America for that education! I wrote this primarily from the perspective of giving every child, regardless of his or her economic status (i.e., zip code) an equal opportunity to a quality education. I have no illusions or assumptions that every child will will graduate with an equal education. But every kid should simply be afforded the same opportunity at success as the one next to them – not because their parents couldn't afford to have a home in the right school district. Let's face it, those that have the means to do so are already abandoning public schools opting for private educations. For us Westerners – private education was largely a function of religious schooling (at least when we were younger), but back East, private school is a status issue and by and large the children that have these opportunities are light years ahead of the average public school graduate. That will continue to be the case, and frankly, this is not about private education – it is about ensuring the children attending public schools have equal access to as good an education as we can possibly provide because i wholeheartedly believe the future of our country depends on it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sean,A fundamental tenant of your position is that in order for America to remain a super power, "we must wrest control of the educational system" away from the local school boards as well as state/federal agencies that oversee the educational system.You point to the falling global ranking of our kids on standardized tests ( compared to kids from other countries), as supporting evidence that our educational system is broken. IMO, it is not.What is broken (warped would be a better description) , however, are our values and priorities. One only needs to watch TV for an afternoon or evening to see what our society values? Shameful. Values and priorities that are learned and ingrained in us at an early age by our parents…or sometimes, on the streets. Values and priorities that go far beyond education. But for the sake of this blog, I will keep it strictly to education. For the most part, the foundation of who we are as a person, can be directly attributable to our parents, and who we associate with… and not the schools. Education and the desire, or urgency to learn and do well at school, is something most of us learned from our parents. Why are some school districts perceived as being better than others? IMO, it's not because the kids in those districts are smarter, or the teachers better…or better opportunities. With but a few exceptions, you will find the better school districts to be located in communities where the majority of parents value education, and most likely, are highly educated themselves. It is the parents that instill in their kids the importance of doing well in school…with the end result that the entire school looks better. But it starts with one parent, one child at a time and snowballs from there.And yes, I appreciate that children from single-parent families, or in poor school districts have things stacked against them. But then again, I have enough antidotal evidence that says even these kids can do well and succeed if the right parental guidance is provided. A good friend of mine, who is white, went to one of the poorest public high schools in Richmond. He use to tell me these horror stories of how he use to get beat up for being white in a school that was about 90% black, and that by the time he graduated, half the kids he started with were either dead, in jail or had dropped out of school. Oh, and did I mention…his dad was a cop. That didn't help his situation. His dad kept him there because he didn't have the money for a private school, nor could he afford to move. He said his dad said, "this will toughen you up". It didn't, and he learned to cope, to survive by surrounding himself with small group of nerdy kids to hang around with. The upshot of all this was – because of the support he got at home, he graduated top of his class and got a full ride at Cornell (that's where I met him). My bottom line is – you want to fix education, then start with the families – first. Develop peer mentoring. Develop extended neighborhood/community families that look after those kids that want to learn. For those that don't and just want to hang out and disrupt class…I say let them drop out. Get rid of them. Go to a vocational school to learn a job skill. High school and college does not have to be for, nor should it be forced on, everyone. You want to attract more kids to engineering, science, math, teaching, etc….then change the way we pay these groups of professionals. Change the corporate tax laws to get corporations to invest in longterm R&D. Develop a robust job market, with good pay for these kids…and they will come.The issues are complex, but the biggest bang for the buck (in improving education) will come by reaching out to the parents and setting up a network to help kids, that want it, to succeed.

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