Friday, February 15, 2008

The Decline of Education in America

Our work force is falling further and further behind in the global race!
by Charlie Leck

I'm not a fan of David Brooks, the columnist for the New York Times. He's just not very consistent in his writing and I sometime wonder if he remembers where he was a few days ago. Nevertheless, in his column of 15 February 2008, he wrote something that makes sense.

"In the 19th century, industrialization swept the world. Many European nations expanded their welfare states but kept their education systems exclusive. The U.S. tried the opposite approach. American leaders expanded education and created the highest quality work force on the planet.

"That quality work force was the single biggest reason the U.S. emerged as the economic superpower of the 20th century. Generation after generation, American workers were better educated, more industrious and more innovative than the ones that came before.

"That progress stopped about 30 years ago. The percentage of young Americans completing college has been stagnant for a generation. As well-educated boomers retire over the next decades, the quality of the American work force is likely to decline."

Brooks is right-on about this! He recommends that the neo-conservatives grab this as their theme for the coming election, advising that the Republicans will catch the Democrats flat-footed on the issue.

Where has Mr. Brooks been? Recall my doubt about him knowing where he was a few days ago! Barack Obama has been talking about this problem for months. This has been a liberal issue for years. The problem has been that Republicans don't want to spend the money to rejuvenate the American educational system. It needs a top to bottom, complete overhaul. That will cost money. It will mean taxes and it will mean taking away those obscene tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans were given by George Bush and his cronies in Congress.

You want evidence that Americans are now dumber than dumb? Go to You Tube and watch this clip of Kelly Pickler (American Idol) appearing on "Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader?" Well, my goodness! Enough said!

We don't really need to build a case to convince anyone that the American educational system needs a drastic revision. How about a President who will put real, professional, creative and top-notch educators at the top of the Department of Education? This is one department with which we can't play politics. Not that Margaret Spellings, the current Secretary, isn't a qualified person, because she is. She gotten herself handcuffed, however. She's handcuffed by her own personal conservative stance on taxes and spending. She's also handcuffed by a President who won't ask Congress to give her the tools she needs.

If David Brooks thinks this could be the watershed issue for the Republican Party, he must be daffy. The ideas you outline in your column, Mr. Brooks, will take some pretty handsome spending. Listen to John McCain on spending these days! The conservatives are going bankrupt this nation by not spending. American industry and commerce needs a highly educated work force. Don't expect the largest corporations to lobby for spending money in this area. They don't need the American work force. They see that China and India are far outpacing us in teaching the sciences, technology and math to their students. This is a global society now (The World is Flat) and the massive corporations are global and don't depend on America.

America needs to compete. Our workers need to compete against the work forces in China, India, Japan, Korea and a host of other places. Where are we in this education race? Face facts! We are way down at the bottom of all the industrialized, economically significant countries in the world. A continuation of conservative leadership will only drive us further down toward the bottom. They're going to keep pushing No Child Left Behind and they'll keep leaving lots of little kids behind in the American classroom because they don't provide the funds to make their program work. Barack Obama has taken a courageous high-road on education. He says he's going to be open to all possibilities – even vouchers (if he sees evidence that they'll work).

Obama was even willing to talk openly about merit pay in a speech directly to the NEA.

"I think there should be ways for us to work with the NEA, with teachers' unions, to figure out a way to measure success,… I want to work with teachers. I'm not going to do it to you; I'm going to do it with you."

"In the 21st century, countries that out-educate us now will out-compete us tomorrow… The work you do and the difference you make has never been more important to the future of this country."

Obama's approach is going to cost us. You can't get quality without paying for it. The neo-cons mantra about cutting spending and cutting taxes is utter stupidity. We cannot have high quality education at the prices we're devoting to education today. The neo-cons want to keep cutting taxes on people who can well afford to help us pay for better education and these same people are the ones who should help us pay for it. We have to think of this increased spending as an investment for the future. A nation that does not invest in itself is doomed.

Obama made the speech to the National Education Association (NEA), in which he mentioned those things quoted above, in July of last year. A short time after the speech, Alexander Russo, writing in Education Week, declared that Obama had handed the NEA endorsement to Clinton. Well, here's fact Jack! Teacher's Magazine is saying that educators across the nation overwhelmingly support Barack Obama.

Stephen Dubner, writing on my favorite blog, Freakonomics, applauds Obama on education and especially on paying teachers what they're worth.

If you're concerned about education in America and you're still undecided on a presidential candidate, go to the issues section on Obama's web page and check out what he says about education.

Here's a new, hot book to which you might want to pay attention: Jacoby, Susan: The Age of American Reason [Pantheon Books, New York, 2008]

This book paints a vivid and accurate picture of American's declining position in the race for industrial greatness. Jacoby, in particular, points to the fact that our educational system is failing our students. Even though students are spending more and more time in school and advancing further in school, they are not learning at the rate and level of the other advanced nations of the world. The impact this has on our economy and our ability to compete in a global commercial war is enormous.

Read more about the book on Susan Jacoby's web site.

Read the Salon.Com review of Jacoby's book.

Read a New York Times review of Jacoby's book.

Another intriguing book, which I am yet to read, is Against Happiness by Eric Wilson. I'm on the waiting list at the library for this one and I'll let you know about it after I've read it.

CHANGE OF SUBJECT Have any of you seen the documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side? It's supposed to be extraordinary. If you have seen it, tell me about it.

Last weekend we saw the movie, The Great Debaters. We loved it! It's a smashing and wonderful story! We only read good reviews before we went off to a discount theatre to watch it. I certainly was surprised to learn what I did about little James Farmer. You will be, too.


  1. It is an interesting discussion you raise, yet I feel that you are leaving out a very important part of the topic; standards that require more of students, allow for students to be tracked to less demanding courses when they are less academically capable, and standards of knowledge and ability for the teachers.
    The teachers that we have now are in a large part, it is sad to say, unable to preform at a highter level. They are often individuals that took education courses because they like kids and didn't want to do harder course work at their universities. While there are many that are among the best minds... they also have those that are not. We must, with any program of increased pay, have in place a requirement to either improve those of less quality, or to remove them from the profession. At any corporation in the world, you do not raise the pay of those workers that are doing a bad job, you replace them.
    Children have a desire to learn if given a good enviroment and proper instruction, we need to develope a plan that allows for the standardization of education wiithin the core coures. A student in 8th grade in Louisiana should be at the same level as the ones in New York and Oregon.
    We must admit that as in all things there are going to be students that are not able to keep up with the others, we must stop the move to slow others down so that others may keep up, this is a very real leak in the educational plan that we must put into place. We never want to abandon those that can't keep up but perhaps it would be better to tract them into programs that are more suited to their abilities. Keep in mind that while being a graduate of a university is something we all want for our children, not all of them may be capable of it. This country must focuse on improvement but needs to also remember that we also need the people who bring the trades and skills to the table. You can be the greatest chemist alive, but if your toilet system backs, up you better get a good plumber or you will soon be in a large smelly mess.
    The last point I will make is to link pay to "performance" of the kids, we must also be honest with ourselves, if you tell people that they will get a bonus if they have a particular number of students pass then they will make that number happen unless you have set up "strong" measures to prevent improper help.
    This country has a great many needs but we must decide how those needs will be met and not require that only some of the people support them, we need the whole of the country to start standing firm and to stop being devided by politics.

  2. Although your point is good it lacks any real insight or political knowledge. First you expect an inexperienced speech maker to be able to get this done. It is obvious that your high schools history classes were poorly administered if you believe Obama can accomplish any of his half brained schemes. Second you want to raise taxes at a time when costs are at an all time high and inflation is running rampent. I do agree with you that education is the very important and that we do need to be competitive. Our problem however stems from this constant, everybody is a winner, no child left behind garbage. Some kids are just meant to be janitors. As long as we dumb our courses down to the lowest level of brain function in the class room we will never succeed. I know it is not politically correct to call a kid stupid and that with proper correction everyone can be motivated. Unfortunetally life is not all fuzzy feelings. We used to understand this and you better believe the rest of the world does. Teach your kids to work hard in school and move forward with the rest of the class. If not just like the slow people in a race you get left behind. That is how we fix our education system. We bring it back to what it was. A competitive, serious environment that through tough classes and determined students produced the best in the world.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Michael, though, obviously, we disagree completely. Lots of people have got to stop thinking about spending money in this nation and begin thinking about it as investing in our nation.

    Of course we need janitors; however, we can't let great scientists and theologians and teachers slip through the cracks because we weren't diligent.

    I'm currently working on the third of 3 new blogs on this subject and I hope you'll read through those blogs posted in late June and early July 2008.

    I'd like to suggest that, when you comment on blogs, you ditch the anger and try reasonable dialog. We get further when we do that and you'll be surprised how often you might make a new friend.

    Chas Leck

  4. Chas, thank you for your quick response and I appologize for coming across angry. I have strong feelings about the education in this country and sometimes come across a bit intensely.

    I do agree with the fundamental point that you are trying to make. We do need a new education system in this country and we are falling behind. I just believe that throwing money at the problem is in fact a hindrance and not a push in the right direction.

    We spend to much time trying to promote political correctness and treating everyone equally. The fact is that all though everyone should be treated fairly people are not equal, atleast not in the sense of being identical. Some people, no matter how much money is spent, are not going to be good at math. That is a fact.

    We can become competitive again and it does not require a fat wallet. It involves more than anything good parenting. A father and mother who impress upon their children that education IS important is better than any amount of money that can be budgeted for education. Furthermore parents need to teach there children that hard work and determination are required for success. These teachings cannot be undermined by the school systems attitude of treating everyone equally regardless of how hard they try and how well they perform.

    Imagine if you will two students working on a science project. One spends 15 hours a week researching and developing her project. The other student completes his project in an hour and a half the night before it was due. If each were to get nearly equivelant grades the student who had worked 15 hours would not put in the additional time on the next project. Almost more tradgically the second student would never learn the importance of hardwork and proper research.

  5. Good comments, Michael. Now we may get somewhere. Go to my more recent blog on PROBLEM OF MINORITY EDUCATION and you will see a lot of material that agrees with your position.

    I agree with your earlier comments about "no children left behind" but I feel strongly that the system, as now structure, may too easily miss very talented kids and let them fall into the gererational habits created by parents and grandparents -- often because untalented and uncaring teachers are leading them.

    Go take a look at:

    Come back, keep reading -- we all need to spend more time reading thing we don't immediately agree with -- I am included in that...

    Chas Leck