Friday, January 3, 2014

Can We Become Education Nation Again?

Concerns about education in the United States are not new.  And as the latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores of 15 year old students placed the US 36th in math, 28th in science, and 24th in reading, there seems to be no shortage of opinions, causes, and solutions. We lost our way when we took out school prayer, it’s because of the federal government, teachers’ union, poverty, No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, bad parenting, etc.  With so many factors to choose from, how do you really know why we have fallen so far behind in educating our next generations?  Does it matter?  Should we be upset that Vietnam, Slovenia, Poland, Macau, Estonia, Belgium and others routinely kick our ass? 

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people…If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.  As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves…we have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”  Sound like a recent pronouncement?  It is actually from a Reagan administration Department of Education report A Nation at Risk from 1983.  It seems our concern about education is decades old.

Is it due to income disparity in America?  Well if you assume that no other nations have a similar financial stratification, once could make that claim, unfortunately, when you look at American students at the highest income quartiles, as noted by Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, they did not perform as well as students with similar backgrounds in other countries.

Perhaps it’s because we no longer have school prayer? Well then we need to go back to the early 1960’s and the landmark case of Engel v Vitale which started the case law of the Establishment clause and the limits of prayer in public schools.  This is once again a renewed debate as South Carolina is looking to establish a voluntary prayer or opt out arrangement.  I am not sure how praying in school makes a student better in science, and for that matter I am not sure how praying in general makes her a better in mathematics.

No, I think what we are experiencing is simply a case of failing to keep up mixed in with arrogance, special interests, and hubris.  What worked before doesn’t work in, as Tom Friedman says, the new flatten world.  Instead of keeping up with wireless technology and mass education, we argued whether intelligent design belongs in a science class.   We chose teacher’s years of service over innovation.  We looked for simple metrics when we should have looked at cultural shift.  We studied failing schools, when we should have been analyzing successful schools. We refuse to extend the school year like the developing world now does.  We are happy to buy products made inexpensively overseas, but refuse to believe that tomorrow’s innovations can come from these same countries.  Kids have more distractions and less discipline.  Education was the families business, now just getting by is all that matters.

I do not have the answers, but I do know that if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a nation to restore its educational prowess.  


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