American Education in the 21st Century
“I have not yet begun to fight!” shouted Captain John Paul Jones, before winning a fierce Revolutionary War naval battle. That could become the American public’s reaction to the poor ratings US students receive in international academic competitions. Pragmatic Americans will, in due course, understand that changes in our educational attitudes and practices are overdue if we are to achieve the universal literacy and skills we desire.
Other leading nations today understand that educated human capital is a more important national asset than financial, industrial, or physical capital. Only America regards education as a private consumer good (“It is for your benefit so you pay for it.”) rather than a public resource worthy of governmental investment for all qualified students from all backgrounds at all educational levels. The undervaluing of universal educational opportunities is reflected in our national low levels of upward socio-economic mobility and in the disparity in achievement between our advantaged and disadvantaged demographic subgroups.
While our well-endowed best private universities and technical institutes are the envy of the world, no other advanced nation has such glaring imbalances in educational opportunities for its advantaged rich versus those for the inner-city minority poor or the isolated rural young. No other advanced nation makes so little provision for the vocational training or employment preparation for those unable to go on to higher education and no other advanced nation respects its teachers so little, trains them so inadequately and pays them so badly yet expects miracles from them in the classroom.
Factors unique to the U.S. make educational reform difficult. Fifty individually-programmed state governments and 14,000 distinctive school districts (each financed by local property taxes) present formidable problems which are exacerbated by a polarized federal government.
To achieve for our national educational enterprise the public support it must have to obtain the necessary resources, our public intellectuals and educators must make a persuasive case. Fortunately, the factual basis for such a case is clear.
Our non-profit colleges and scientific institutes are admired throughout the world, while many of our for-profit colleges are seen as semi-fraudulent scams victimizing a poor and unsophisticated clientele. Our elementary and secondary schools, varying widely in quality, are considered both among the world’s finest and among the world’s worst. Our nation’s 1,300 community colleges, largely ignored by the well-educated middle classes, are under-utilized vehicles with great potential for giving functional training to our poorest, our formerly incarcerated, and our non-English-speaking immigrants.
Decades ago, the U.S. public understood that education does not “cost” but that it “pays” Economists pointed out that the U.S. government’s best investment was the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and that the second best was the 1867 purchase of Alaska. The third best investment, they said, was the post-World War II G.I. Bill, from which the taxes paid by educated veterans were much greater than those paid by their non-educated identical twin brothers. That additional tax revenue represented a great financial return on the scholarship funds advanced.
Education today still pays, but four separate problems merit immediate attention and open-minded discussion:
• The “level playing field” we need for all the country’s preschool children;
• Higher standards for the selection, training, remuneration, retention, and promotion of primary and secondary school teachers;
• College-level provision of STEM and professional training (along with exposure to general education) for all qualified students; and
• Encouragement and support (at federal and state levels and by private philanthropy) of the scientific research that will brighten our future.
Opinions differ and fair-minded observers will take varying positions on these topics; but our national well-being requires serious attention and informed discussion by our national leaders and thinkers.
Every nation’s pool of aptitudes and talents is reflected in a similar bell-shaped curve of human possibilities. Those societies best able to provide opportunities for every child to realize its full potential are destined to flourish. When great potential goes unrealized, we all lose.
America needs a continuing national conversation on how to face this challenge. From 2008 to 2017, state funding for public two-year and four-year colleges declined by $9 billion and average tuition in public colleges increased by 28%. Average student loan debt for 2017 graduates was $28,700, yet 60% of all Americans support tuition-free public colleges. We have a lot to talk about. #
Daniel Rose is a realtor and philanthropist in NYC.