Education in the Time of Covid-19*

Education in the Time of Covid-19

America became the greatest nation on Earth because America’s educational system was the best on Earth … from elementary school through high school, at the college level and at postgraduate levels, for private as well as for public schooling. Uniform excellence at all levels of education was the American Way …, as well as being an integral component of the American Dream. With the world’s best education system, Americans were the most creative and most-productive … and as a result America became the wealthiest nation on Earth. Superbly-educated Americans excelled at almost everything. They built, they invented and they invested, creating seemingly endless employment opportunities for themselves and others who aspired to become American. Pursuing educational excellence made America great.

Hyperbole? Not at all.

But that’s changed … and changed radically.

In math, the U.S. now ranks near the bottom of the world’s 39 industrialized nations. The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, ranks the U.S. 37th out of the 79 countries and regions that participate in the testing. In reading, the U.S. ranks 13th and, in science, 18th. China ranks 1st in all three … and countries like Poland, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Finland, Canada and others, with smaller per-capita educational budgets and GDPs, rank ahead of the U.S. on all three scales.

By every measure and using a good many differing educational standards, America’s education system is failing not competitive with its international rivals – and, as a result, its undereducated children will not be prepared to compete internationally. Public education in America continues to fail is failing, and private education is not making up the difference – it is not lifting the mean or the median. Disturbingly, the dichotomy between public and private education is creating a separate, uniquely American problem by exacerbating an already-wide class divide …, a subject explored in depth elsewhere …, and one that also undercuts a foundational principle of the American Dream.

How to educate America’s children is a subject that’s been debated at length in Congress, by each State and at every conceivable local level. Where it hasn’t been adequately debated is at the national level, in front of the American people, by America’s leaders in broad public forums. What needs to be aired – and what needs to be acted upon – is a major overhaul improvement in the educational system across America. Without a better – and more successful – education system, America will be left behind, as it already has been left behind by many of its international competitors. America achieved its greatness by producing generations of well-prepared, well-trained, and well-educated citizens. Other countries now are doing a better job. A continuation of educational underperformance will end badly for America. Achieving a superior education for a nation’s citizens determines that nation’s future. America therefore cannot settle for an inferior education for its children. A ranking of 36th, 13th and 18th out of 79 is far from superior. Each such ranking screams failure. Each such ranking is a cry for change, change for America’s education system, change in the approach of its Federal, State and local governments, and change for America. America cannot countenance, and American prosperity and global hegemony cannot survive, continued educational underperformance.

Educating America’s children hasn’t been a priority for America’s voting public. National and State politicians rarely mention education. Why should they? Doing so hasn’t been a national or state-wide vote-getter. It needs to become one.

Americans decided in the early 20th Century to make education a national priority … and at great cost made free, compulsory high school education the national standard. That was an unprecedented leap forward in education policy and practice … 100 years ago. That single innovative decision drove American dynamism and success. America has shown precious little innovation since then, whether at Federal, State or local levels. What has changed, and for the worse, is Americans’ attitude towards education. No longer do Americans place the same value on teaching or teachers. Where teaching was once among the most respected of America’s professions, teachers now are undertrained, underpaid, and under-appreciated. That needs to change. Further, although Americans view education as an internecine battle for college entrance slots between Americans – whether between Texans and Georgians or New Yorkers and Nebraskans –, it’s actually a competition between America’s children and their counterparts around the world, those in China, Germany, Finland, Israel, South Korea … and everywhere else. That international competition is not going to disappear. To the contrary – it’s only going to become fiercer … and today America is losing the education excellence war.

The trend in educational excellence outside the U.S. has taken a variety of innovative directions. Two are worth highlighting. One divides educational direction at the upper school level, one path leading to higher learning and the other to vocational training. Germany provides an interesting, and a successful, example of that binary approach. State-provided nursery school is available for children ages 1-6 – an important early-start-to-education approach absent in most of America – after which elementary school is compulsory. The subsequent lower-secondary education provides a basic general education to all children with upper-secondary education providing multiple paths to more advanced academic and vocational training. University is the route taken thereafter by those on the academic path, with apprenticeships being available for those on the vocational track. Because education in Germany is the responsibility of each individual German state, practices vary, adding further diversity to the educational system.

A second notable practice is to place a premium value on teachers and teaching excellence. Teachers in Finland perform better than their international peers precisely because they are highly-valued and well-compensated. Finland’s comprehensive pre-school program is funded by the state, as is the case for most highly-rated educational systems. Pre-school is followed by compulsory basic education that leads to either an academic education or vocational training. Finland, unlike America, has not adopted nationwide standardized exams. Instead, classroom curricula are selected by Finland’s highly-trained teachers. A rigorous “process approach” to teacher training coupled with the delegation of classroom autonomy to those teaching professionals has placed Finland’s children near the top of international rankings. The Finnish system differs from America’s in part because it is designed to develop thinking and problem-solving rather than memorization and standardized-exam-taking. It draws from the reality of modern life where success is based on each person’s individualized toolkit for approaching, attacking and defeating challenges. The diversity of such an educational approach encourages creativity and individual excellence, both in teachers and their students … and it’s working.

That’s not the educational model that American schools have followed. America has not made rigorous teacher-training a national priority. America’s public schools rarely offer free pre-school programs. And America’s schools have rarely experimented with vocational options. Instead, there’s been an over-emphasis on standardized testing with an unfounded belief that all Americans benefit by receiving a college education, even if doing so requires students to incur un-repayable student loans. Success, needless to say, is not measured by a college diploma. Success requires a marketable skill. Moreover, although education in America is a locally-managed affair (as opposed to China’s centrally-managed one), Federal and State legislation requires that Federal, State and local authorities all participate in coordinating standards and responsibilities in order for State and local education districts to receive Federal funding. Super-majorities in both houses of Congress accordingly enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 (ESSA). ESSA, in replacing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), nevertheless continued NCLBA’s requirement for annual standardized testing. Although ESSA shifted educational accountability from the Federal government to State governments, States nevertheless are required to submit planned goals to the Department of Education for approval. The goal of ESSA was to distinguish high-performing schools from low-performing ones, providing data that States could use to improve the underperformers. It hasn’t worked as planned. This bureaucratic mess hasn’t increased success rates.

Whatever the best method is for educating America’s children in the 21st Century, it isn’t by continuing the same structures and techniques that were used in the 20th Century. Whether America should adopt the Chinese, German or Finish models isn’t the question. What is clear is that elements of all those systems are achieving results that are superior to those achieved by America’s schools. Resting on America’s misguided educational laurels has been counterproductive. Mixing Federal standards with State standards and local control has created confusion and, in the end, has perpetuated educational mediocrity, short-changing America’s children. The damage to the existing adult population wrought by America’s failing educational system has been well-publicized: Americans without a college degree or a marketable skill – that is, the majority of America’s working-age population – are barely able to earn a living in the 21st Century’s gig economy. They have turned to welfare, drugs and depression. Their problems will be exacerbated by Covid-19. It’s past the time when America needs to face the harsh realities of its educational fiasco … and do so before the damage to the next generation of American children becomes irreversible.

Finally (from a good friend)

*┬® Copyright 2020 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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