Wednesday, March 17, 2010

U.S. Education

by Richard Crews
Two or three decades ago the U.S. education system, from kindergarten through graduate school, was the envy of the world. Parents emigrated to the U.S. from across Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America to gain for their children the precious gift we provided. And the brightest college students from around the world left their families, friends, and cultural roots behind to attend U.S. universities, especially U.S. graduate schools.

The decline of U.S. education was insidious, but its extent was severe.

Why did it happen? The causes were subtle and complex. For one thing, pay gradients got out of whack. The brightest graduates of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were increasingly drawn to Wall Street by the obscene incomes paid for untangling and manipulating the novel network of sub-prime loans, derivatives, mis-rated bonds, credit-default swaps, and other exotic financial inventions spawned by deregulation. Young executives in the financial field made millions; at the other end of the pay scale, young college graduates who entered teaching barely made enough to support a family much less pay off their tens of thousands of dollars of student loans.

In 2001 the Bush administration tried to get elementary and high-school education turned around with the No Child Left Behind Act. But this was misdesigned in several key ways.
(1) It left to the states to set testing standards--there was no effective national guidance.
(2) It specified only reading and math--not science, social studies, languages, or history, much less music, art, or any well-rounded educational perspective.
(3) It depended on specific achievement tests--teachers were forced to "teach to the test" rather than drawing out broader concepts and intellectual development.
(4) And there was no federal funding--states were left to the mercy of lobbyists and their own state budgetary constraints to fund the new federal mandates. "No Child Left Behind" became "No Lobbyist Left Behind"; the spin phrase "educational race to the top" became a "race to the bottom."

During Obama's first year in office, he orchestrated the greatest advances in U.S. education in history. From pre-school through graduate school,
(1) national curriculum standards were carefully developed by teams of educators,
(2) the focus broadened to encourage science education and a spectrum of humanities including history, languages, social studies, art, music, and athletics,
(3) student evaluations were diversified and made part of the curriculum,
(4) and federal funds were made available at every level.

Obama is also promulgating regulations for transparency and accountability on Wall Street. Some return to salary sanity should follow.

Education is the most important infrastructural foundation on which U.S. success in the 21st century--both for individuals and for the nation--will depend. The Obama administration has made a splendid start at rebuilding and reinvigorating our education systems.