Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Skills Race: 5 problems with America's education system

The chart says it all. When it comes to literacy and numeracy, Americans are far from exceptional.

The OECD’s report into adult skills is a much needed wake-up call. In our age; the age of the globalized economy, a cavalier attitude to education won’t cut it any longer. Here are five specific inadequacies that we need to address.

1) Educational Management
Ultimately, education is about fostering intellectually curious citizens. ‘Fostered curiosity’ is critically important. After all, mandatory schooling ends at age 18. When we graduate from High School, it’s up to us to decide whether we pursue greater knowledge or skills. However, unless our preceding educational background is positive – unless we see value in knowing more, our interest in learning will atrophy. This is a basic fact of pivotal importance; as the OECD report notes, facilitating lifelong learning is paramount. Yet, instead of embracing the facts, schools across America are hampered by an excessive bureaucracy that punishes learning. Take the SAT. With its multiple-choice fetishism and its defining influence in college admissions, the SAT is both intellectually retrograde and omnipotent in its shaping impact. In forcing teachers to ‘teach the test’ rather than spark knowledge, the SAT teaches students to regard their education in a perniciously one dimensional manner. In doing so, it fails to encourage exceptional students and it fails to support struggling students. It defers developmental curiosity to college. In the end, the costs are clear. Those students who don’t go to college? They’re left behind. Those who do go to college? They have to learn how to learn.

In America today, true learning is a privilege for the few rather than a right for all. We need an education system that enshrines testing in creative thought as well as retention of facts.

2) Educational Culture
As in South Korea and Japan, we must come to realize that the responsibility for an education does not end at the school gate. That in fact, parents have a central role in helping their children learn. Our national ‘blame the teacher’ syndrome is an indictment on our burgeoning spoon fed society – expectation without endeavor. From both the left and the right, we need to empower parents with the tools to know if they’re children are being well served. The George W Bush Center's Global Report Card is a good example of one such tool. At the same time, while our teachers deserve respect, teachers unions deserve scrutiny. Children are the future of American, they’re not political pawns.
Let’s be clear, until we get real about our educational culture, we’ll be unable to win the skilled, well-paying jobs of the future.

3) Costs v Outcomes
America spends a great deal on education. Yet, as the OECD study and countless others prove, skill based outcomes do not correlate with our investments. One major problem is the scarcity of merit based reward systems. When the best teachers have two choices – to either to take employment at private schools which offer the best income, or serve in poorer school districts that cannot afford to reward their talents, the consequence is a growing equality-opportunity gap. Equally crucial, we must break education funding away from hypothecated county taxes – educational opportunity must not be shaped by the wealth of one’s locality. We also need to empower Principals with far greater control over their budgets - both in terms of hiring/firing and setting individual compensation levels. Indeed, in appointing principals, we should look beyond the education sector for leaders in business and other public policy areas.

Of course, even as we address middle-high school education, we must also face up to the reality that American colleges are simply too expensive for too many who leave school to continue their studies. A skills based future demands more than chucking Federal grants and hoping for the best. We need to pressure higher education facilities to bring down their price tags.

4) Discipline
Speak to a teacher and they’ll likely tell you that they spend nearly as much time dealing with disruptive students as they do teaching. That has to change. Linking with parental responsibility, we should consider extending truancy fine into the classroom. Sustained poor behavior = parents get an invoice. It’s true, many will howl at the very notion of such a proposal. Regardless, we can no longer allow a few individuals to damage the futures of their peers. That approach is morally unjust and in societal terms, it’s also profoundly idiotic.

5) Sport
America is obsessed with high school sports. In one sense this is good – our celebration of shared athletic excellence is an intrinsic part of our American community spirit. Still, though sporting success may help students gain admission into college, few such students will become professional athletes. In this vein, academics must come first. We have to ensure that students possess the basic skills that they’ll need to succeed outside the major leagues. Additionally, we need to do more to recognize those students who excel in fields beyond sports. Whether art, math, debating or football, individual excellence should be judged on merits rather than form. As George Gershwin, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs attest, individual excellence isn't predicated in the movement of a ball.
               In the end, we must take heed of the modern age. As a people, our relentless ‘can do’ attitude has always been our greatest ally. It’s what the world most respects in us. Yet divorced from skill, hard work alone is no longer enough. Ultimately, America’s limitless potential has always taken root in our binding of social aspiration to individual ability.

Until we right our education system to that proven course, America’s better future will meet an unyielding wall.

Also, please check out my piece on 3 lessons American public schools can learn from British private schools.
Photo: University of Detroit Mercy


  1. This was very insightful. Thank you.

    1. I was wondering if I would be able to cite some of this article for a Speech I am giving in my class for a controversial debate? Great Read.