There are reams of reading and stacks of studies purporting to assess various problems of the United States’ educational system. Each problem turns out to be rooted in our individual failure to place an extremely high value on a solid education. Our failure contrasts sharply with societal values of China, India or Japan where admission to universities is a high calling and competition for scarce slots is fierce.
This failure to assign a high value to education is all too easily laid at the feet of society rather than each of us. Unfortunately, that approach allows individuals to escape responsibility for doing something to reverse the “… rising tide of mediocrity”, so well documented a whole generation ago by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.1 If we truly cared we would be working, really hard, to reverse that tide.
The numerous findings of the Commission as to content, expectations, time and teaching2 are more compelling today than they were then. Little has been done to: extend the school year or extend daily hours in school. Those remain the same. (note 10 infra) A full core of language, math and science for all students is not required and only a third of students study the solid subjects.3 Teacher pay remains low in comparison to other professional opportunities for college graduates.4 Dropouts are 30% or higher.5 The disproportionate influence of the education lobby continues.6
The consequences of a failed system are severe. Our kids won’t have good jobs. Their quality of life will decline, sharply. Our culture will lose international influence. Commerce does not wait. CEOs can hire better educated workers offshore to sustain value. Why should the rest of us wait at home?
In 2005 the prestigious ACT noted: “… the number of post secondary school graduates will not be sufficient to fill the more than 14 million new jobs that will be added to the labor market by 2008. And, leaving high school without being prepared … will cost our nation over $16 billion each year in remediation, lost productivity, and increased demands on criminal justice and welfare systems.”7
In 1984 thirty seven states had minimum competency tests for high school graduation. By 1995 the number was seventeen. The minimums have tended to become maximums, thus lowering standards for all.8 Today rank and file teachers say with some irony that “No Child Left Behind” is coming to mean “All Children Left Behind.”9
The organized time that children spend learning in school has remained static at 180 days per year and about 6 hours per day for a generation. By contrast, educators in China, with one fortieth the per capita GDP of the United States, have 8 hour school days in its poorest, worst educated province.10 Talk about valuing education!
The Commission also noted that a “… 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33
States, and of physics teachers everywhere. This shortage persists. The percent of college graduates going into the teaching profession has continued to decline.11
One specific thing we can do is vote! Votes can emphasize values. Votes get the attention of those who make policy. Even though federal and state education policies tend to dominate, a critical link in our system of education is the independent nature of local school boards. Where voters in local districts can lead, those politics can also help to elect state and federal officials with values that can help.
In short, we need to build a better value system for education. Ask prospective School Board members; ask state and federal candidates what they will do, specifically, to raise the priority of, and fund, high quality education for our children. Elect and retain those with pro-education answers, and actions. Don’t vote for those whose talk — and actions — fail to show that education is a topmost priority.
As parents, we must tell our children we value education highly — and back those words with deeds. Teachers alone cannot be expected to change the value system of our society. The preeminent value we place on education must be clear in all our social interactions, and in our families. Even through poverty, divorce, and single parenthood, education must be sustained as a most important activity of family life. No electronic toys, or ipods, or play time, until all of the homework is done. No cell phone privileges unless grades are up to snuff. And we all can think of additional ways to drive home the point that hardly anything is more important to our children and their posterity than acquiring a quality education. Learning well is simply essential to their future.12
1 A Nation At Risk: National Commission on Excellence in Education; April 1983
2 ibid: Findings; also following Note 10 re teacher shortages
3 Courses Count: ACT 2005 (American College Testing, formerly)
4 USCA: New Teachers and Old Pay Structures; 2002
5 Manhattan Institute: High School Graduation Rates in the U.S.; 2001
6 American Behavioral Scientist: The Political Context of Higher Education; 2000
7 ACT: Courses Count; Preparing Students for Post Secondary Success; 2005
8 Synthesis Report 20; NCEO 1995
9 Desert Sands Unified School District: Author interviews; 2006-2007
10 The Education Sector; Washington D.C. and IUCN Asia Directorate; 2001 (Ghizou; Lowest urban GDP/worst education)
11 Opportunity in Education
12 Author David L. Smith is retired from a dual career in local government and in business. He has owned a company, served as Chairman and CEO of a ten-university consortium doing technology transfers, and as County Administrator for one of California’s largest counties. He is state certified as a guest teacher, grades K-12, for his local school district.