Let’s not kid ourselves. Public education in America is a growing disgrace, breathtakingly so in our major urban areas. It is a disgrace that is going to cost us dearly. In a world rushing toward technological and scientific innovation at warp speed, America has, according to the Council on Competitiveness, declined to 17th place globally in the proportion of its college-age population earning science and engineering degrees. The well-respected Broad Foundation says that our kids rank 25th in math and 21st in science compared to students in thirty industrialized countries and that seventy percent of eighth graders can’t read at their grade level. On average, they are two full years behind in math compared to their peers in other countries. Well over a million high-school students drop out of school every year. That is about 6,000 a day. Barely half of our African-American and Latino students graduate on time, if they graduate at all, and the worst kept secret in the world of education is that a high percentage of those that do finally graduate are not performing at twelfth grade levels. What becomes of them…and what will become of us as a result?
What happens in communities with high dropout rates or vastly undereducated youth? The answer stares us in the face every day –- high unemployment, high crime, and high gang infestation. Sixty-five percent of all convicts are high-school dropouts. High-school dropouts are eight times more likely to wind up in prison than those who finish high school and twenty times more likely to be incarcerated than kids who go on to college. We have, day-by-day, constructed an enormous sub-culture that is unskilled and untrained for anything other than the most menial labor, paying the lowest wages for which few will settle. Instead many of these untrained and unskilled kids are drawn to the big money that can be made illegally on the streets of America. Sadly, of course, that “work” is not only illegal, but also dangerous and almost invariably leads to early and violent death or a life behind bars. But that is exactly the subculture that continues to grow in our nation.
The crisis in education is not just confined to the inner cities. This is a transformative disaster in the making affecting the entire country. We are standing by as spectators to the “duncification” of American youth. We are producing students, at all socio-economic levels, who are woefully behind in virtually every area critical to our competitive standing in the world – language, science, engineering, math, chemistry, physics — all fields of declining American influence. The ramifications for a nation producing a vastly undereducated population will be a nation with a vastly underperforming society, toiling in a vastly underperforming economy. This, we believe, will prove to be a far greater threat to the future of our country than, say; global warming is to the future of our planet.
We are, as Peter Drucker predicted a generation ago, now living in the age of the knowledge worker. That is why unemployment is higher among men than among women in America today. The contest between brawn and brain has long since been decided. The jobs shortage we are facing in America is eclipsed by the skills shortage we are facing. We can create jobs for unskilled or poorly skilled workers, and, perhaps, we have to do that to provide a safety net under those with virtually no earning power. But that, ultimately, is a short-term investment that does little to address the larger and far more critical problem facing the country. We are investing in our own decline.
Google the key words “drug” or “gang” cultures in Rio de Janeiro or in Mexico. The groups that are described are pervasive, terrifying and deadly. Thugs control their own particular enclaves. Five thousand murders take place in Rio every year. What these mostly teenage criminals have in common with our teenage gangs is that they consist almost entirely of school dropouts. That is the way things are there…and the way they are becoming in many of our major cities faster than we want to admit. Washington, DC and Los Angeles are examples of urban centers where the dangers posed by teenage gangs are growing. These gangs are not the singing and dancing Sharks and Jets of the musical West Side Story. Rather, they are dangerous, highly armed and more pervasive.
We Americans like to think that any child can grow up in this country to be whatever he or she wants to be. We say things like that all the time. But what about the youngsters who are already damaged goods by the time they arrive at kindergarten. Kids brought up, perhaps, in loving households, but in households where parents are terribly undereducated or dropouts themselves…households where parents are products of the very broken system about which we are writing…households where children see a mom or dad only on visiting day at the state penitentiary.
A report published just last week by the Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit group, revealed that only 45 percent of low-income and minority students entering college as freshman in 1999 had graduated within the following six years, and only seven percent of minority students who entered community colleges earned bachelor’s degrees within ten years. These data are startling not only because they are indicative of educational inadequacies, but also because they point to the evolution of a growing underclass in America.
How did we get here? It is well beyond the scope of this essay to discuss all of the social factors involved. Suffice it to say, that it is almost entirely a crisis of our own making. There is, as the saying goes, plenty of blame to go around.
We are, to a great extent, reaping a sad harvest from what we ourselves have sown. We continue to pay a terrible price for the years of job, housing and social discrimination, Jim Crow laws, school segregation and systematic political and social marginalization of African Americans. We built a second-class citizenry, which we made little effort to rectify before finally enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more than 100 years following the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States.
Public education, in our republican form of government, is a state and local responsibility and it is largely funded throughout most of the country through local property taxes, which assure that communities with high-value housing enjoy a much higher largess than communities with low-value housing. Under such a system, the wealthy communities get lavish funding and the poorer communities go begging.
Teachers’ unions have become extremely powerful political forces, and have successfully instituted work rules, seniority protection and tenure provisions that serve their members’ interests, often to the extreme detriment of the students they are there to serve. These unions have systematically fought merit-pay initiatives for teachers, the establishment of charter schools and the provision of vouchers designed to enable low-income families to send their children to higher-performing private schools. School choice and competition are anathema to the unions.
Finally, education has become terribly politicized in America. Throwing dollars at problems, the politician’s panacea for every dilemma has not produced great improvement in the state of education in America. In fact, there is surprisingly little correlation between what states spend per student and quality education. Some school systems that have the highest expenditures per student are among the poorest achievers (Washington, D.C.) while other school systems that spend the least per student have the highest achieving students (Utah). Clearly, we are doing something terribly wrong.
What to do? To start with, we have to take account of the fact that this is a national problem but it is not solvable by the federal government. Public education is a local responsibility here. Reform must be accomplished in the thousands of counties, cities and school districts that make up our geography. Some guidance, national standards and block and demonstration grants directly to local, county and city school districts would have to be provided by Washington, but implementation should be local.
Here are a few modest ideas.
• First, let’s stop pouring money into systems that are failures and begin seriously funding alternatives that are full of promise. Providing vouchers to enable low-income families to send their children to better schools has been a spectacular success in most areas where it has been tried. Washington, D.C. is a good example. In its annual evaluation of the D.C. program, the Department of Education found that the voucher program’s earliest participants are 19 months ahead of public school peers in reading after only three years.
Nationwide, black 12th graders as a group score lower on reading tests than white 8th graders. The D.C. voucher program has proven that we can close or greatly narrow this achievement gap. But, since the teachers’ unions are vehemently opposed to vouchers, Congress, turning a deaf ear to the parents of Washington’s inner-city students who are great supporters of the program has, disgracefully, taken steps to kill the very promising voucher program in our nation’s capital even for those students already enrolled.
• Second, we need to centralize local control of the public schools in qualified administrators appointed by the executive branch of local government as has been done in New York and Washington and give these administrative professionals the authority, free from meddling, grandstanding politicians, to hire and fire principals and teachers.
• Third, let us also fund a concerted effort to provide community-based development centers for children in which youngsters are exposed to regular, positive stimulation from infancy. The Israeli Kibbutz system, through which an illiterate generation of immigrants was transformed into a citizenry that went on to produce one of the best educated, most innovative and productive societies in the world, cannot be transposed into our inner cities for a whole host of reasons. Nonetheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned from what they were able to accomplish. Severely, undereducated youngsters can, over time, be brought up to grade level in educational environments that are geared to deal with socially, culturally and economically disadvantaged student populations.
• Fourth, we also need to establish, on a crash basis, specialized magnet school academies for students who show special promise in mathematics, science and language skills. One size does not fit all and some young people simply have aptitudes others do not possess. It is far past time that we focus on those core studies and begin to de-emphasize (albeit not eliminate) touchy-feely subjects that concentrate on matters such as racial, gender, sexual orientation and other divisive societal differences that have crept into almost every aspect of our national consciousness.
• Last, but surely not least, we should end tenure and seniority provisions for public-school teachers and instead pay teachers on a merit basis for better performance. There are many thousands of hard working, dedicated, high-performing teachers in America. They should be rewarded accordingly. As Candidate Obama, much to his credit, stated in the run-up to his presidency, teachers who do not serve the best interests of their students should seek work in some other field.
The socio-economic level of the ultimate beneficiaries cannot determine the level of funding to be provided. Investment per student should not be a function of the value of the homes in which students live.
In previous essays, we have concentrated our focus on certain issues of immediate consequence such as health care, the struggling economy or Afghanistan. Not only are those issues important but also they are very controversial. Education, however, is a stealth issue. It isn’t a headline maker and the problems with the system have evolved slowly over time. But the quality of our educational system, while often overlooked, also very much affects our national security.
No matter their political persuasion most Americans agree that our nation is being economically challenged, not only by traditional competitors (Western Europe, Japan), but also by newly emerging economic powerhouses (China, India, Indonesia) whose economies have moved in a short span of years from agrarian to highly industrial and high tech. As newly developed powers, their plant and equipment is often newer and more modern than our own. Moreover, because of more centralized (statist) governments, these nations can channel their education and training programs toward the industries they favor. A well-educated workforce will be required if we are to maintain our position in the world and continue to enhance our productivity and grow both our traditional industries and the new high-tech industries that continue to emerge and grow. Unfortunately, we are not producing the caliber of public-school graduates that will compete well with their European and Asian counterparts, and certainly not in the numbers that will be necessary to provide strong wages for a workforce of our size.
Too many politicians at all levels, Democrat and Republican, talk during their election campaigns of the critical importance of providing every youngster with a reasonable chance of success. But their talk is cheap. Once in office, campaign rhetoric must be translated into concrete action. If that means funding early childhood intervention programs in which parents can enroll their children or some of the other ideas mentioned above (and there is no shortage of other ideas as well), then money should be redirected to that purpose. In short, our educational system needs an overhaul. If we, as a nation, forfeit (to the growing number of countries whose children outperform ours) our ability to provide the highest quality of education to our children we will forfeit America’s leadership position in the world.