The Failure of the US Education System – We’ll be the Last to Know

by Sarah Firisen

Images My children’s school is hosting a panel discussion this month on Educating for 21st Century Success and anticipating this has caused me to pause and wonder what that term really means. What is success and what will it mean in the future? David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister, has decided to create a national happiness index, ”trying to measure the happiness of a society, rather than its growth and productivity alone”, perhaps in an attempt to persuade people that there’s more to life than material success in a time of weak national growth and productivity. And while is some real validity to the idea that there’s more to a successful life than a good job, possessions, and the other trappings of a capitalist culture, at the end of the day, a large part of success by most people’s standards involves a satisfying professional career that helps them provide for their family. But, as we plow ahead into the 21st century, how do we make sure that everyone can attain this goal?

Glancing through news pieces I’ve collected over the last month or two, I've noticed an interesting thread: Watson, the IBM supercomputer beats Jeopardy champions and ushers in a new era of artificial intelligence; according to the New York Times, “Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software”; a piece reporting that, “American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.”; and finally, ending with the recent denouncement from the political right of teachers as overpaid, part-time workers.

So, computers are becoming increasingly “intelligent” and automation is quickly encroaching on traditional white collar jobs. Meanwhile, Americans pat themselves on the backs, believing that we are the smartest best educated people in the world, all evidence to the contrary. In fact, we are so smart already that we don't even think teachers matters, which is why, as a McKinsey Quarterly report points out, American top students don’t want to teach. Contrast this with the world’s top-performing education systems, Finland, Singapore and South Korea which, “recruit 100 percent of their teaching corps from students in the top third of their classes.” They do this, not only by giving them good training and working conditions, but by cultivating an atmosphere where teaching is considered a prestigious, valued profession. McKinsey reports that, in the US, by contrast, “only 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third, and just 14 percent of new teachers who come from the top third work in high-poverty schools, where attracting and retaining talented people is particularly difficult.” And this was before Republicans mounted a national campaign to “mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents”.

Basically, we’re stupider than ever, increasingly badly educated, but think that we’re the smartest.

As a nation, we’re so smart in fact that we don’t need our children to be taught by the best and the brightest. Instead we can afford to devalue and defund the field of education, increasingly driving the best and the brightest to shy away from teaching.

We continue our decline into internationally ranked ignorance by allowing some school systems to stop teaching actual science, and in some cases history; as just one example, a bill in the Florida Senate, in an attempt to get “intelligent design into the education system through the back door, would require teachers to present a “thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution”.
To make ourselves feel better as a society, we look the other way at institutional grade inflation – “Over the past few decades, for example, the number of hours college students spend studying has steadily declined. Meanwhile, the average G.P.A. has steadily risen”, and this enables us to continue the charade that we’re as well educated as ever. Then we fool ourselves that it doesn’t matter that our children have to spend twice as long out of school in the summer as children in most other nations, with many parents pushing back against any attempts to introduce year-round schooling, “Public opinion polling has consistently shown that a majority of American adults oppose mandatory summer classes, too.”

As state budgets are being debated around the country and children are increasingly on the losing end, what seems to so often get lost in the partisan bickering is that this situation is not good for anyone, Republican or Democrat. Paul Krugman, talking about Texas in particular and its low-tax, low-spending ways says you have to wonder, “how the state can prosper in the long run with a future work force blighted by childhood poverty, poor health and lack of education.” And you can extrapolate that to the rest of the country.

In the past, the US has led the world economy because we have led the way in innovation, but this position of dominance is increasingly being threatened by Asia. And what is our government’s response to this? To propose, “cuts to the federal budget this year that would have a drastic and harmful impact on future clean energy innovation and investment.” At least this is the Republican plan being proposed to Congress. These plans will threaten US innovation efforts in the present and near future, and the decimation of our children's education will make sure we can never catch up.

We continue to chant “USA, USA”, and to tell ourselves that we’re number one, despite almost overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There’s an awful lot of talk that gets thrown around about patriotism and “loving my country”, but that’s all just empty rhetoric, political posturing, meaningless blather if you’re simultaneously doing everything in your power to make sure that US children are as ill equipped to compete in the new global economy as possible. Forget competing with children in China, they have to compete with Watson; they have to be able to add more value to a law firm than a computer can. Can we honestly look at the way that we are raising our children, as a nation, and say that we’re equipping them for 21st century success? I don’t think so.