Sep 282010
National Day of Action in Defense of Public Ed...
Image by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Education Nation, NBC’s weeklong look at education in America, kicked off Sunday with a Teachers Town Hall. Involving a live audience of a few hundred and another 6,000 logged in online, the meeting provided a forum for teachers and others to voice their opinions on the issues affecting education. Many shared their private experiences and perspectives in an open dialog looking at everything from teacher recruitment and retention to tenure, charter schools, global competition and parental involvement.

The Town Hall event comes on the heels of the release of the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” which many argued places teachers in an undeserved bad light. Several people voiced the opinion that teachers are being unfairly attacked, that they were being made the scapegoats for the growing shortcomings of our education system. Most topics enjoyed shared support from the crowd and guests on stage, but tenure stood out as a single point of contention. Even amongst teachers, the debate over tenure revealed some who argued that it protected “bad” teachers and others who strongly disagreed.

If the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is any indication, most Americans seem to agree that, regardless of tenure, teachers aren’t the major problem with education. While 58% of those polled believe that education needs either a “major change” or “complete overhaul,” only 30% cited teachers as part of the problem. And the only group that a majority of people, 53%, identified as part of the problem was elected officials, with parents next highest on the list at 50%.

Regardless of who’s to blame, there are few who believe that the system doesn’t need reform. Asked to assign letter grades to the system, only 19% of those surveyed would give either an A or B. This is good news in that the American public seems to have a fairly good handle on the topic. Of course, it’s also bad news, since they’re correct. The U.S. now ranks 24th amongst the 37 Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD) nations in mathematics, 21st in science and 15th in literacy. As many in the education community are inclined to state, “the system is failing our children.”

But is it accurate to label a system that only graduates 68.8% of its students as merely “failing our children?” Not to downplay the significance of such a statement, but holding the problem in such a perspective is more than a little limiting, and may actually provide a window into certain important aspects of the problem. To suggest that the impact of the failure is isolated to students is to misrepresent the true customer of education and to minimize its destructive effects upon the nation.

In the United States, between the federal, state and local governments, over $1 trillion will be spent on education this year. That’s around 7% of our GDP, which is enough to rank #2 amongst the OECD nations, second only to Iceland.  For a moment, forget the question of whether or not Americans are getting their money’s worth, the point is that education accounts for more public spending than any other category, except healthcare — even more than defense. The customer of the American education system is not the students; it’s the American taxpayers.

The attitude that public education is intended to serve the students fails to recognize the importance of an educated populace. Countries don’t invest in education because of some moral imperative directed toward student wellbeing; they do so because it’s an absolutely essential part of building and maintaining a strong and prosperous nation. To the extent that an education system is effective at producing capable and knowledgeable graduates, it’s also effective at providing the labor resource for a high-performing economy and the intellectual engine for technological progress, while simultaneously minimizing the cost of social programs, law enforcement and corrections.

The American education system has failed the children, but more importantly, it has failed America. Never mind our international rankings. They provide a decent relative measure, but the impact is felt right here at home. The impact is fewer graduates capable of designing tomorrow’s technology; it means fewer science papers and patents originating in the U.S.; the result is a labor force increasingly incapable of competing on a global basis, and the tragic side effects are more unproductive Americans, higher crime rates, more drag on available social programs and an increased sense of futility.

Explanations for the failures of the system are many and varied, and the suggestions for remedy are limited only by the number of experts chiming in. But the core issue is that the system is in need of structural change, and as is the case with our nation’s energy infrastructure, the vested interests will fight against any reform that may dilute their voice or adversely impact their pocketbooks.

The truth of the matter is that the American education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution with the specific goal of producing factory workers. The primary objective of the system was not to promote the creativity necessary in the 21st Century, but to produce a crop of docile workers who would accept the dominance of the factory system. The schools were designed like factories, the students treated like raw materials, and the finished product was a labor force where few graduates went on to college.

Our system is providing exactly what it was designed to produce. In order to effect real change, the entire system must be rethought, and learning must be the central focus. Alternative forms of education need to be evaluated and systems implemented where the incremental costs of additional students are minimized. Teaching resources need to be expanded to include peers and professionals. Systems that effectively deal with teacher evaluation and development, disadvantaged students, operating efficiencies, measuring student performance, and fully leveraging technology must all be established.

In short, the American education system needs to be redesigned from the ground up with the needs of the nation in the new millennium driving the process. The power of any nation is derived from its people, and the power of the people is derived from their education. There is no more important endeavor for the future of our nation than to optimize our educational system and invest in the citizens of tomorrow.

Next: American Education — the Path Forward.

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