The Fall of American Education
IRVINE, Calif., February 28, 2012 — With Presidential elections under way, the hottest topic being leveraged to gain public support is yet again the state of the U.S. economy. The stories, the spins, and the passionate debates on who would put the economy back on track has become commonplace. However, regrettably, there has been little discourse about education as the most powerful catalyst to economic prosperity. Many of the comments in this piece will be controversial and transformative, but considering the state of American education today, it’s prudent to be evaluative, evidence based, honest and at times politically incorrect.
Reviewing and assessing historical information on the health of modern economies, it would be fair to conclude that the education of the workforce is and has always been the most accurate predictor of economic and societal growth, maturity and success. Unfortunately, most in positions of influence in all societal verticals measure various outcomes to gauge the economic health of the country rather than the true source stimulating and generating these outcomes, which is the breadth, depth, and level of education of the country’s workers. The United States still has the largest economy in the world, but the United States is losing ground to many other countries that prioritize education and developing their youth.
Politicians tell the public that education is a top priority, but when the government spends three to four times more per capita incarcerating prisoners than on educating students, the assertion appears relatively insignificant. For example, according to research gathered from the Department of Justice, Georgia lawmakers dole out almost $18,000 a year to house one inmate in a state prison. But the National Education Association says the state spends about one-third of that to put a child through the public education system.
The dismal state of American education has for the most part caused our economic troubles and not much else. Although Americans have an enviable work ethic, they are under-educated, under-trained and over paid compared to their peers in many other countries. This is a dilemma the country has never faced before. However, it seems that few in positions of power and control can or will assert the very obvious; yes, a country’s education and the economy have a causal relationship. It seems those in power do not want to set aside their arrogance and face the brutal facts and create a revolutionary transformation of the country’s educational system. At this pace, the United States will continue to lose ground in all areas, and within the next 20 years, the U.S. will lose its position as the world’s #1 economy.
Many countries that have demonstrated their economic prowess in the past twenty years, China, India, South Korea, most European countries and several South American countries, also have the best educational systems and the most educated workers. What makes the people in these countries significantly more educated than Americans? There are three major separators that are easily identifiable:
- Length of time spent in school. Students in other countries spend approximately 220 days a year and eight hours a day in school as opposed to approximately 180 days and seven hours a day in the United States. Regardless of a student’s intelligence, the amount of time spent in the classroom does matter;
- Teachers in the aforementioned countries are compensated well and teaching as a profession is considered prestigious, therefore, many of the most talented college graduates become teachers in these countries. In the United States, teachers are paid very poorly, therefore, other than those who are passionate about it, teaching as a profession for the most part attracts lower tier college graduates and the higher tier college graduates enter fields such as medicine, law, engineering, and business-related professions. To compare, in Finland, most teachers represent the top 10% of their graduating classes, but in the U.S., kindergarten through 12th grade teachers represent the bottom 25%;
- There is little accountability in schools. Many times it seems that American schools are better at producing drop-out factories as opposed to learning communities. Over 25% of high school students drop out every year in the United States, and this percentage is increasing annually. Approximately 30% of community college students complete their programs, and an even smaller percentage transfer to four year universities. It doesn’t get any better at four year universities, where the average national graduation rate is under 40%. In other countries where education is a top priority, however, drop-out rates are very low and graduation rates are very high. Is there hope for the United States? Is it possible for the country to re-gain its position in academia? Most expert observers are extremely skeptical as special interest groups spend billions of dollars every year influencing public policy, therefore, it would be naïve to assert that those in key positions would do what’s best for the country and for the people as opposed to conforming to the interests of those who keep them in power. Many are hopeful and optimistic that those in power will come together once again to focus on all that has made the United States the envy of global peers. What must those in power do to transform the country to the #1 position again in education and sustain the country’s premier position as the number one economy in the world? As mentioned earlier, a comprehensive transformation of the country’s education system is necessary, from kindergarten through college.
The following are the key levers to be integrated into the design of a national education plan to be implemented over the next five years. It is important to incorporate all of the following in the plan as a whole and not independently as they are all necessary, inter-related and co-dependent.
- Extend the time students spend in the classroom to match those of other countries with effective educational systems; 220 8-hour days a year. The amount of time spent with a qualified teacher in the classroom is critical.
- Proportionately increase all teacher salaries in accordance with cost of living and to match salaries of other coveted professions, such as engineering and accounting. Hold teachers accountable for student learning, achievement, retention and graduation. This level of compensation and accountability will draw in the very best talent into the field of education;
- Eliminate all unions in the education vertical. Unions have played an unfavorable role in the creation and sustenance of a system anchored in dogma and stagnation. Moreover, many of the countries ill-conceived public policies on education at all levels are due to the politically charged and selfish agenda of unions. In addition, when teachers are treated as professionals and are paid well, the perceived need for unions will be eliminated;
- Eliminate shared governance in education. Leaders lead; managers, manage; and teachers, teach. The more we confuse the roles and responsibilities of professionals within education and the more time educators invest in areas outside their areas of expertise, the slower the process of improving the infrastructure to produce necessary learning communities that match those of other countries.
- Develop a two-tier vocational and academic track so high achieving and non-university bound students are separated at an earlier age. This effectively prepares students for either college or the workforce. This should be accomplished by consolidating community colleges and high schools and leveraging the financial resources and human capital of these two entities that currently operate independent of one another. Billions of dollars are wasted every year in these two monumental systems that offer redundant programs and labor without a true national shared vision for improving student learning or workforce development and without well-delineated missions to distinguish the two conglomerates from one another. It appears to the expert observer that community colleges serve to fulfill the academic obligation missed by high school systems, meanwhile community colleges take little accountability and fail to quantitatively substantiate their ability to serve the common good. However, together, because of the savings in redundant programs, activities and positions, a world-class education system could be developed to design communities focused on and aligned around the student. This would dramatically improve student learning, student achievement and student outcomes. This dual-track system will then have the capacity to effectively prepare students for the workforce as well as four year colleges and universities;
- Allow all education entities, non-profit and for-profit, from kindergarten through college to operate and compete within the same regulatory boundaries. The United States has excelled and has become the only global superpower in less than 300 years mainly because of the opportunity to compete in a free market. Rules, when consistent and not redundant, are necessary, but they should be applied evenly and not dictated by the entity’s tax status. Almost all of the best thinking and innovation in this country have been generated by the private sector, and limiting the passion, vigor and imagination of this sector will only unfavorably support the disastrous fall of American education;
- Focus on educating the underserved, underrepresented and underfinanced people in the country. The United States can only become successful by educating those who have historically been avoided and ignored by education systems. When people on welfare are educated and trained to secure employment, they will no longer rely on government dependency programs. But it appears that the country is moving in the opposite direction. Recently, the U.S. federal government passed a bill eliminating all funding for high school drop outs to pursue postsecondary education anywhere in the country. More than 25% of all high school students drop out every year, the majority of whom are unemployed or on welfare. How can President Obama’s promise to make the U.S. #1 again in education by 2020 come to fruition when education funding for the poor is eliminated?
- Educators have to use their imaginations to design and develop new and different methodologies to deliver quality education by the best teachers. For example, a very talented private music teacher in Southern California decided to stay home to take care of her young child, like thousands of others have done in similar situations, but she did not want to give up teaching. She decided to develop a method to continue to teach music from home. A year ago, she started using OOVOO, Skype, and Google talk to teach music. Very soon, she developed a long list of students not only in the U.S. but from around the world. These technology tools give her the ability to use new video, voice and data technologies to deliver education in synchronous and asynchronous platforms. Plus, she can record the lessons, allowing her students to practice between lessons. This method not only allows a top teacher to continue to practice the profession she loves while generating much needed income, but also allows learning to take place anywhere and anytime. This is a cost-effective, creative, efficient, and “green” method to teach and to learn by using our best teachers.
The United States faces one of the greatest obstacles that it has ever faced as a country with an education system in steady decline. The only way to overcome this enormous dilemma is to accept the brutal facts – the most important one being that other countries are educating their people more effectively than the United States – and then take transformative and revolutionary steps with courage and tenacity to re-establish the country as the global leader in education. It is possible to reinvent the national education landscape. However, the political priorities and the imagination of those in political power are undeniable variables that can prevent and limit the country’s transformation in education and consequent economic recovery.
About the Author
Dr. Fardad Fateri is the President and Chief Executive Officer of International Education Corporation, one of the largest private education companies in the United States. Dr. Fateri has had a diverse professional background within the higher education space, from being a professor to leading large organizations, from working in a small non-profit terminal degree granting university to holding top posts in large privately funded and market funded education companies. Prior to joining IEC in January 2008, Dr. Fateri was the Chief Academic Officer for Corinthian Colleges, Inc and prior to that a senior executive at DeVry, Inc. He completed his bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D., and post-doctoral education at University of California, US International University, California State University and Harvard University.