In 2008, during the US presidential election, there was considerable discussion about the condition of the US economy. To me, education is upstream from the economy so perhaps, education should have been the paramount subject in the election debates.
Here are some ugly US statistics. A recent piece in USA Today pointed out the richest one-tenth of American families had incomes of above $104,700 in 2006. However, these same richest families accounted for 49.7 percent (almost half) of the entire nation's income that year. This is the highest such percentage since 1917, when such figures began being compiled. The obvious conclusion is the other nine-tenths of American families shared the other half of the nation's income. These stark numbers reveal the enormous income distances between the haves and the have nots in this country. The causes for the huge income distances are probably many; however, I will focus on the one I think is the major and growing cause.
I have often described the propensity for many Americans (and their governments-local and national) to consume more than they collectively produce. The theme of this editorial is not unrelated because people are prone to consume more than they should when conspicuous and opulent consumption is easily seen in more affluent citizens. The implication from my previous discussions is Americans should either consume less or produce more. If consuming less is unappealing, how then can the U.S. produce more? In a world economy, with fierce competition for every conceivable commodity and finished good, the long-run answer is a far better education for American young people that are capable and willing.
US culture has to evolve into one that truly values academic accomplishment rather than the current one that gives merely lip-service to educational achievement. For example, many American parents will insist they want their children to get good educations, but when push comes to shove, they also insist their children play basketball games on school nights instead of doing algebra homework. Actions speak louder than words.
I know there are those that say and there are statistics that prove, "American young people today have more years of schooling than any generation before." That may be true, but are they getting diplomas and certificates for "attendance" as opposed to real achievement? I think there is serious "educational inflation" within US society when high school and even many college students cannot write a coherent paragraph or solve a basic mathematical problem.
Furthermore, every American parent of a middle school or high school student knows the lack of discipline in US public schools is disruptive and extremely incompatible with gaining a good education. Yet, due to public US policy (No Child Left Behind) and many parents' permissiveness, schools no longer suspend or expel students for unacceptable behavior. Schools are for education; not for housing and tolerating the uninterested, delinquent and often violent young person.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient Greeks and Romans got it right. They understood the relationship between a sound mind and a healthy body. Why is it that we in the U.S. do not have one hour of mandatory physical education everyday for every student? And, I do not mean physical education classes that are sitting watching a film or doing some other sedentary activity. I am talking about vigorous exercise (running, calisthenics, and heart-lung development activities). Tennis shoes and gym shorts are cheap. Furthermore, there may be less bad behavior in schools if all students were partaking in physical exercise on a daily basis. In addition to more and better exercise, why do US schools have any lunch or food programs that are not indisputably nutritious? If obesity and generally bad eating habits are well documented among US young people, why has US society spent decades talking about the problems and not addressed them?
Finally, let's look at the ratio of administrators to actual classroom teachers in the typical American public school system. It is astonishing to me that there are so many directors of this and directors of that, teacher mentors and coaches plus other such titles. What exactly do all of these people do? Today, US educational salary incentives strongly motivate teachers to move to positions within the ranks of administrators. If US school systems were armies, they would be accused of very high "tail-to-tooth" ratios. In fact, too many administrators are counterproductive. They justify their existence, and their higher salaries, by thinking of yet more aimless tasks for the few overworked teachers to do in the classroom. This takes even more valuable time away from teaching and lesson planning. For good education to take place there is absolutely no substitute for classroom contact hours, by qualified teachers, in small classes. If there were enough available classrooms, maybe the U.S. should reassign half of the administrators to classrooms. This would at least lower class sizes.
The truth is, a world-class economy, one that has a high standard of living for its people and a relatively narrow gap between its haves and its have nots, must have an effective and world-competitive educational system. This we do not have in the U.S. A poorly educated general population is directly responsible for many of America's current economic problems and it will most certainly be at the very root of future US economic woes.