Friday, December 26, 2008

U. S. Education

Education is the foundation of a nation's--

HEALTH, not only of its individual citizens but also of its broader institutions and of itself as a collective,

WEALTH, in our modern, post-agrarian and post-mineral-resources world, and

STRENGTH, in facing a rapidly evolving international political environment.

The U.S. education system has had a strong, storied past.

The first half of the 20th century was the time of the "high school movement" in U.S. education (actually more precisely considered 1910 to 1940). There were a great many high schools built throughout the U.S.; they were under the control of local school boards; they were funded by taxes--local, state, and federal. They were open to all and were very forgiving of the inevitable transgressions of adolescents . Their focus was academic (rather than vocational) but they were seen as "preparation for life" rather than explicitly for college.

In Europe and throughout the world, other industrialized countries did not follow this trend until the later decades. In the U.K., for example (but also throughout most of Europe), education for teenagers during this period was relatively closed to the general populace, was centrally run by the national government with uniform standards, was notoriously unforgiving, and, though it was explicitly academic for some youngsters (in preparation for college), it was designed to be trade training or preparation for industrial labor for many others.

After the Second World War a different emphasis emerged in U. S. education. The remarkable educational benefits awarded to veterans under the G. I. Bill created a wave of post-secondary education. This continued through the Korean and Viet Nam Wars so that by 1975 over 16 million returning vets had used their G. I. Bill benefits to attend college. The period from 1945 to 1975 might rightly be called the "college movement" in U. S. education.

The G. I. Bill is often considered the most important single factor responsible for creating the enormous growth of the middle class in the U.S. during this period--people who owned their own homes, who had families and individual jobs (they were not hired and fired en masse), and who expected their children to finish high school if not college and to do better than their parents in pursuing the American Dream.

The last quarter of the 20th century represents yet another phase in the history of U. S. education. During this period the U.S. reigned supreme as the "graduate school of the world." In 2000 some 25% of transnational higher-education students were studying in the U.S. with the proportion tipped significantly higher than 25% in post-graduate studies.

During the last decade of the 20th century some flaws appeared in the U. S. education mystique. Elementary and high school students in Japan and several European countries were found, on standardized tests, to be outperforming U.S. school children. Then, Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative of 2001 largely backfired for three reasons. First, lack of funding: although the federal government mandated standardized school-achievement goals, federal funds were not provided to help advance educational efforts to achieve these goals. Second, in order to meet these standards, schools widely began to "teach to the tests," that is, to shape their curricula specifically to the areas and the kinds of questions the federal tests required. This led to less diverse curricula and less flexibility in responding to teachers' and students' personalities, special interests, and strengths. And third, in addition, the Bush administration's anti-scientism (in appointments, policies, and legislation) also undermined educational efforts.

President Obama has emphasized the importance of education--pre-school through graduate school--in strengthening the U.S.'s place in the world and in assuring our continued leadership not only in science and engineering, but in all aspects of civilized life. Let us hope and pray he is successful in realigning the U.S. with high educational goals, and let us all work with him arduously to achieve them.