The Concord Review
3 March 2012
In the Winter of 1959-1960, before I went into the Army, I worked at a Gulf Station (now gone) in Harvard Square. The owner of the franchise at the time refused to service VWs and other foreign cars because he said they were just a fad. At about the same time (before we had decided to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth), General Motors and other American car manufacturers had the attitude that the public would buy whatever vehicles they wanted to make.
Fast forward to the present, and, to a great extent American educators now believe that employers will hire whoever they give diplomas to. But foreign cars were not a fad, and employers in the second decade of the 21st century often do not want to hire the graduates of our high schools because they are not well-educated and they require quite a bit of not just on-the-job training, but basic remediation before they can become good employees. There are hundreds of thousands of American jobs which cannot be filled by Americans because they are not able to do them.
General Motors and its American peers, after many decades and many billions of dollars in losses, did wake up, and American cars are starting to compete again. Sales and profits are growing, after a long dry spell.
There is insufficient sign that American educators realize the crisis they are facing. After reading Marc Tucker's Surpassing Shanghai, the strongest impression with which I came away was that in this country we are not really serious about education. Now, how can that be, when we have recently spent, as Susan D. Patrick reports, $60 billion on technology for the schools and we are completely awash in edupundits, reform initiatives, school improvement programs, federal initiatives, and professional development? Aren't we doing all that could possibly be required to compete with our peers in other countries?
No, we aren't. To take one very crucial first step as an example. In Finland, Singapore, and other successful educational systems, nine out of ten people who want to be teachers are not accepted for training. They want only the best, sort of the way we do when we select and train Navy SEALS. But in this country, just about anyone who thinks they want to try teaching can be accepted into the profession, even when we find that 50% leave within five years.
In South Korea, the country nearly shuts down the day of the very very important high school graduation exam, while in this country we really don't think there should be one. We claim that anyone and everyone should go on to college, whether they have any chance of knowing enough or studying enough to reach graduation or not (and most don't). We are being told that everyone who goes to our high schools should also go to our colleges, and our colleges should graduate them, whether they know anything or can do anything or not. They may be uneducated, but, by golly, they will be our college graduates!
How can I say such things, when there are so many diligent people trying to raise educational standards in so many states and so many school districts across the nation? Let me suggest one test. Where is there one public high school in the United States which has said, we will give up our sports and other extracurricular programs entirely until we can make sure that our graduates are truly well-educated and as competent as the best in any other country in the world?
This would be considered not an example of real seriousness, but an example of egregious folly and near-insanity, by our sports fan parents and alums, and immediate plans would follow for the termination of any educator who suggested it, while arrangements were being made to ride them out of town on a rail.
We love our academic mediocrity, because there is so much of it, and it is so very difficult to give up. We do not just have an obesity problem physically in the United States, we have too may fatheads who are addicted to educational junk food, and even in the face of innumerable fad diets, we just refuse to trim ourselves or raise our student accomplishments in education to current international educational standards.
I believe we can do it. We got 12 men to the Moon and brought them back, even during the decade of our American Red Guards yelling and screaming and trying to shut down our universities, with the help of an excited media cheering section.
But of course we cannot make sure all our high school graduates are well-educated, employable, and capable of completing a serious college program if they choose to do one, if we do not take education more seriously than we do now. And we need to start by paying more attention to what other countries are already doing if we are to make the necessary changes in good time.