America’s Greatest Resource – Education

People today go to school to prepare for a job. Previous generations went to school to prepare for life. Both are necessary.” – The Lonely Realist

America became the greatest nation on Earth because it had the best education system on Earth … from kindergarten through high school and at the university level. The American public education system dwarfed in ambition, breadth, depth of curricula and outcome the educational opportunities offered everywhere else. Excellence in learning was the American Way. Obtaining an education was a key to realization of the American Dream. With the world’s most highly-educated citizens, America became the wealthiest and most successful nation in the world. Americans excelled, building, innovating, investing and creating seemingly endless opportunities for themselves and their children …, all because education was a national priority.

It no longer is.

As a consequence of divisiveness, politicking and neglect, America’s educational performance today is dismal, placing it 22nd in global test results achieved by 15-year-olds in math, science and reading (pursuant to an every-three-year study by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)), far below #1 China, as well as 20 others that include Singapore, Canada, South Korea, Finland, and Poland. The reason for America’s pitiful showing owes much to American politicians’ treatment of education as a vote-buying tool rather than as a source of national strength. Politicians at every level compete (1) for the votes of parents of school-age children, often by creating education vouchers that de-emphasize public schooling (as well as charter schools) and encourage private education, home schooling and, sometimes, religious instruction, (2) for the votes of teachers and teachers’ unions, and (3) for the votes of adults without school-age children by prioritizing lower taxes over education. Perhaps America’s children should be allowed to vote? Since school-age children haven’t been granted suffrage, they are not high among politicians’ priorities. Maximizing learning, providing educational excellence to America’s future generations, and promoting educational objectives that further a competent citizenry to support America’s democracy accordingly have been de-prioritized. Today, education rhetoric focuses on constituent-catering that includes burning banning books (perhaps politicians should read Fahrenheit 451?), selecting textbook content based on voter preferences rather than historical fact (following the examples of role models Russia and China), and engaging in culture warfare …, none of which is based on a belief that doing so will produce the best-educated, most successful, well-integrated and tolerant graduates … or a more prosperous and healthier America. Should education really be about making children pawns in alternate adult realities? Or should it be about preparing America’s youth – and America – for 21st Century realities?

It seems that the one feature of America’s public education system that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on is its poor quality. 74% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats are “very concerned” about it, with only 36% saying they are satisfied with K-12 education (the lowest percentage since Gallup’s first survey in 1999). And, yet, 76% of America’s school-age parents say they’re satisfied with their oldest child’s education. That may seem inconsistent, but isn’t. Although there’s a recognition of national educational deficiencies, playing to local perceptions and fears creates the delusion illusion of locally-sourced solutions that have resulted in educational achievement. The reality, however, is widespread underperformance, dysfunction that reflects the consequences of ignoring difficult choices and acceding to local preferences instead of optimizing educational decision-making. Although local voters are aware that the public education system is underperforming, they attribute America’s poor comparative performance to unenlightened, partisan-driven school districts that provide low-quality, politicized education. Their children, coddled by local political choices, surely are doing fine.

The purpose of education is to prepare young Americans for adulthood by providing them with the knowledge needed to flourish. A high-quality educational system maximizes individuals’ economic, social and civic potentials …, and, yes, in doing so also maximizes America’s success. There are differing opinions as to which elements will maximize these goals – that is, how much emphasis should be placed on traditional subjects, such as reading, writing and math, versus job-oriented ones. After all, reading, writing and math are among the skills that modern AI is intended to master and that are thought likely to replace human inputs. A question for 21st Century educators therefore is how much and to what extent America’s educational system should be regeared towards vocational training. Revolutionary changes in technology together with the existing unevenness/inequality of education in America makes this a question that requires a nation-wide strategy. The PISA results speak strongly to teaching the skills necessary to achieve both life and technological competency with the consequent need for increasing high school graduation rates as well as developing rigorous college- and career-specific standards. Doing so would not oust local school boards of their autonomy. National coordination would provide local school boards with a comparative performance metric with which they could judge their own success … as could parents of school-age children … and make appropriate adjustments (which was the goal of the now-discarded No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that State and local school authorities largely ignored). American success cannot be achieved when local school boards adopt disparate, partisan-motivated curricula and utilize questionable definitions of adequacy that often produce educationally deficient, globally-uncompetitive American citizens. Eschewing a coordinated definition of quality is the very definition of educational failure. It is a contributing cause as well as an effect of American divisiveness. America needs to bring its education system into the 21st Century. In addition to adopting national comparative standards, elevating the attractiveness of careers in education and adopting innovative, personalized learning tools should be integral to politicians’ election platforms.

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Finally (from a good friend)

  • jeffcsiegel
    Posted at 17:37h, 17 September

    It is good to try to improve America’s K-12, but federal changes are not answer.

    American’s standing in the world on education is fine. Smart people from all over the world want to come here, and they are helping to keep both select zip codes k-12 and our post k-12 education system top-notched. We are a big country and not everyone has to be great at k-12. We recognize that politically at least. Americans just don’t highly value most kids’ education. If they did, they would have kept the kids in school during Covid like they did in Sweden (and some – mostly red – districts). The results are easy to see. High School Teachers describe the incoming class of kids as “Sweet and Low.” Nice but dumb kids who simply cannot handle the same history class as kids before them.

    Our education system is too political to make work federally. The NCLB act & Common Core while they seemed like a good ideas became unpopular and unfortunately didn’t work. GA used to do education via social promotion where we passed kids who couldn’t read to next grade. Trying to teach algebra to 7th graders who cannot even read was an impossible task. With NCLB GA stopped that. It seemed like a good idea, until you see a left-back 19-year-old boy in class with your 13-year-old daughter. These are hard issues, and more nimble states, rather than federal bureaucrats, are the best place to figure stuff like this out.

    • The Lonely Realist
      Posted at 06:15h, 18 September

      You are confirming the point made by TLR: “You are aware that America’s public education system is underperforming, but attribute its poor performance to unenlightened school districts that are irreparable. Your children, coddled by local political choices, are doing fine.” Unfortunately, your conclusion that “America’s standing in the world on education is fine” is factually incorrect — by every measure of educational performance, America’s education system, as well as its comparative/competitive standing in the world, are in decline. Your complacency in dismissing education system failures because attempts at repair are “too political to work” is an admission of America’s defeat … and of a poorer, more unequal and more divisive American future.

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