With the media beginning to hold forums, and with the Obama administration’s attention to a reform movement called “Race to the Top”, it’s time to turn our attention to one of the most critical public issues that we as a democratic society must face squarely with all the vigor and thoughtful debate that we can muster. I speak, of course, of an issue that goes to the heart of who we are as informed citizens of a democratic republic: public education.
But we need to start much further back than many politicians or proponents of change and reform seem willing to go. In my humble opinion, the question of education reform should NOT start with whether the legislation that goes by the laughable nickname of “No Child Left Behind” needs to be amended or discarded, or kept intact. We need to get much more basic about this particular reform movement.
We are in deep trouble as to our standing in the education arena. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked as follows in 2003 in several areas of education:
The U.S. ranks 18th in reading
Finland ranked first, with an average score of 543.
The U.S. ranks 6th in college students aged 20-24
Slovenia ranks first, with 46.1% of all 20 to 24 year old residents enrolled in college.
The U.S. ranks 28th in three year old students
Belgium ranks first, with 99.6% of all three year old children enrolled in school.
The U.S. ranks 4th in money spent per student on secondary education
Luxembourg ranks first, at $18,144.
The U.S. ranks 8th in expenditure on education
Mexico ranks first with 15.1%.
The U.S. ranks 12th in college faculty to student ratio
Sweden ranks first, with 114.2 teaching staff for every 1,000 college students.
CBS News had some interesting comments on these rankings:
“(AP) The United States is losing ground in education, as peers across the globe zoom by with bigger gains in student achievement and school graduations, a study shows.
Among adults age 25 to 34, the U.S. is ninth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree. In the same age group, the United States ranks seventh, with Belgium, in the share of people who hold a college degree.
By both measures, the United States was first in the world as recently as 20 years ago, said Barry McGaw, director of education for the Paris-based Organization for Cooperation and Development, said that the United States remains atop the ‘knowledge economy,’ one that uses information to produce economic benefits. But, he said, ‘education's contribution to that economy is weakening, and you ought to be worrying.’
The report bases its conclusions about achievement mainly on international test scores, and top performers included Finland, Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada and Belgium.
Given what the United States spends on education, its relatively low student achievement through high school shows its school system is ‘clearly inefficient,’ McGaw said.
In all levels of education, the United States spends $11,152 per student. That's the second highest amount, behind the $11,334 spent by Switzerland.
The very best schools in the U.S. are extraordinary,‘ McGaw said.
‘But the big concern in the U.S. is the diversity of quality of institutions — and the fact that expectations haven't been set high enough’.”
John Stoessel of ABC News gave us this more recent assessment in January, 2006:
“A recent Gallup Poll survey showed 76 percent of Americans were completely or somewhat satisfied with their kids' public school. Education reformers like Kevin Chavous have a message for these parents: If you only knew.
Even though people in the suburbs might think their schools are great, Chavous says, ‘They're not. That's the thing and the test scores show that.’
Chavous and many other education professionals say Americans don't know that their public schools, on the whole, just aren't that good. Because without competition, parents don't know what their kids might have had.
And while many people say, ‘We need to spend more money on our schools,’ there actually isn't a link between spending and student achievement.
Jay Greene, author of ‘Education Myths,’ points out that ‘If money were the solution, the problem would already be solved ... We've doubled per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years, and yet schools aren't better.’
He's absolutely right. National graduation rates and achievement scores are flat, while spending on education has increased more than 100 percent since 1971. More money hasn't helped American kids.
To give you an idea of how competitive American schools are and how U.S. students performed compared with their European counterparts, we gave parts of an international test to some high school students in Belgium and in New Jersey. We didn't pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey's kids have test scores that are above average for America.
Belgian kids cleaned the American kids' clocks, and called them ‘stupid.’
Lov Patel, the boy who got the highest score among the American students, told me, ‘I'm shocked, because it just shows how advanced they are compared to us.’
The Belgian students didn't perform better because they're smarter than American students. They performed better because their schools are better. At age 10, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age 15, when students from 40 countries are tested, the Americans place 25th.
Chavous, who has worked to get more school choice in Washington, D.C., said, ‘Competition inspires people to do what we didn't think we could do. If people got to choose their kids' school, education options would be endless. There could soon be technology schools, science schools, virtual schools where you learn at home on your computer, sports schools, music schools, schools that go all year, schools with uniforms, schools that open early and keep kids later, and, who knows what else. If there were competition, all kinds of new ideas would bloom‘.”
It is not an exaggeration to say, then, that the news about our education system is not good, and is getting worse. To throw more money at the problems – and call that “reform” - without a thorough analysis and debate would be in some sense a criminal act.
So, where do we begin? In my opinion, we must decide what the national PURPOSE of public education is in our Country. I challenge you to try to find any such statement that exists as an overarching statement at this moment. There is a purpose statement for the Department of Education, but that’s different. To what end do we have public education? Why have public education at all? What reason or reasons are behind our immense system of education in this country? How can we know what our system requires if we don’t even know why we have it in the first place?
It would help to know what other countries say as to the purpose of their educational systems, especially in those countries that lead in certain categories of comparison. We also need to hold regional conferences all over this country to give ordinary citizens, teachers, pupils, parents, administrators, etc., an opportunity to develop PURPOSE statements that might be used to feed into a national (White House?) conference which could perhaps develop a national Statement of Purpose, a Mission Statement, plus a set of goals and objectives that could lead us to a real reform of the current system.
Yes, this would take time -- a fair amount of time -- but it’s been done before, particularly as preparation for the White House Conference on Aging held in 1981, and it worked! Yes, it took a better part of a year to hold all the regional Conferences, but the results were solid, and produced some important recommendations and subsequent legislative enactments that are still benefiting senior citizens.
We have a choice: keep going along as we are (holding to the status quo in education); throwing money down a dark hole, not knowing for what reason or purpose we are spending that money, and all the time losing the global race to have the best educated citizenry;
OR: we can act deliberatively and deliberately to bring about real reform by deciding, first of all, why we have public education; what it’s outcomes are meant to be; what goals we need to set; what objectives and actions we need to fund to accomplish our educational Purpose and our Mission, and to meet the goals that have been set.