The Canary in the Coal Mine: The U.S. Education System in Context
Terrorism, climate change and our education system are the topmost national security issues facing the USA.
The debate on the threats posed by the first two is robust, and I am confident that solutions for them will be found because they are immediate, self-evident and existential threats.
The national security threat posed by the state of our education system is more insidious, but nevertheless dangerous, because not only is it not being addressed, it is being ignored. Even worse it is being tolerated by American citizens. Worse than that it is not even on the agenda for any of the candidates for office. Listen to the debates and speeches amongst the candidates – even the highest office – in 2016. Do you hear any mention of structural school reform except that public colleges should be free, which they should?
Think of education this way: it is part of our infrastructure. Infrastructure is simply government doing the things an individual cannot: building roads, bridges, airports, seaports, the electric grid and keeping us safe. And, like all our infrastructure problems, they seem only to be a cause for concern when a tragedy occurs.
The problem is that our infrastructure is a slow motion tragedy. Small tragedies are happening one at a time, all the time. And being given temporary fixes. They will accumulate and inevitably become catastrophic national security issues – then what? Think of the drinking water crisis in Flint Michigan. It will almost certainly cost more to remediate the problem now than it would have to prevent it. The same goes for our schools. Think of the schools in Detroit; a national disgrace.
We have known for decades that our schools are underperforming. If you don’t believe this read the opening statement from a report on the state of education commissioned by Ronald Reagan in 1981, ominously entitled, A NATION AT RISK. “If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it happens we have allowed this to happen to ourselves, we have in effect been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral intellectual disarmament.”
In 2007 another commission of leading thought leaders including politicians, business leaders, labor representatives, and academics published another report entitled “TOUGH CHOICES, AND TOUGH TIMES.” They wrote: “Thirty years ago, the United States could lay claim to having 30% of the world’s population of university and college students. Today that percentage has fallen to 14% and continues to fall. While our international counterparts are increasingly getting more education, their young people are getting a better education as well. And American students and young adults place anywhere from the middle to the bottom of the pack in all three continuing comparative studies of achievement in mathematics, science and general literacy in the advanced industrialized nations.”
You know that in 2016 things are no better. The question is why. So, let me explain: and rebuttals are welcomed!
If there is a better example of Adam Smith’s free-market, laissez-faire, capitalist economics at work in the world than in the USA I am not aware of it. This model relies on what Schumpeter, an Austrian/American economist, called “creative destruction.” In other words, make something people will buy or someone else will. I call it Darwinian.
Yet, whilst we praise the virtues of capitalism and decry socialism or communism, we seem quite happy to tolerate the top-down, government-knows-best, education system now in place, which obviously is the polar opposite of the capitalist model that has served America so well. Why are civil servants in Washington D.C. telling kids in Sarasota Florida what they should learn?
Think about it, in the communist state-sponsored economy, which all Americans instinctively detest, each factory was told how many items to manufacture, and also each school was told exactly what to teach. The US government does not tell our factories what to build or how many to build, but we continue to tell our schools exactly what to teach, despite overwhelming evidence it is not working.
This particular part of our national infrastructure should be called by its real name – a national homogenization program. In the most diverse nation ever to exist on earth we are hell-bent on refusing to leverage that diversity. The No Child Left Behind Act – and its successor – is in fact leaving every American child behind.
In all categories American students, when measured against the other Western democracies, come in between 24th or 29th.
Is it any wonder that Gallup Poll reports that 76% of Americans are disengaged from their jobs, and that a mere 29% of Americans think high school graduates are ready for college?
In 1992 Bill Clinton’s successful campaign was driven by a pithy slogan he shared with campaign workers. “It’s the Economy Stupid.” Nowadays we might say, “It’s the Schools Stupid.”
Alex Terego After 40 successful years in the hi-tech business, during which he participated in all phases of computing, beginning with IBM and culminating in selling his voice mail company, Alex became an early thought-leader in 21st Century skills development. He developed his Terego Method™ when teaching Critical Thinking at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Eller Graduate School of Business at the University of Arizona.
The program is now available at no cost for schools. Click to see this narrated video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnumpVhywfs It is an investment of seven minutes of your time to discover how you can teach students to think for themselves and in teams.
Follow me on Twitter @alex_terego