The U.S. became a superpower in the 20th century and led the world through a tumultuous 100 years, through two world wars and a revolution in technology and invention. We became the richest nation on earth, with the highest standard of living. Our system of capitalism and free markets was a major factor in this meteoric rise to power, but what really was the catalyst was our educational system.
We blossomed as a world power because we had the best educated people on the planet. We were the first country to have free education for all through the 12th grade, and we had tough standards that students strived to meet. As a result, we had the best engineers, scientists, businessmen, writers and scholars in every field. They invented things, developed new ways of manufacturing, of doing business, created new works of art and crafted manufacturing and service industries second to none.
Throughout the first three quarters of the 1900s, we were number one in the world in education, topping every other country in reading, math and science. There are many studies that purport to show where countries rank, and they vary somewhat. But one thing is consistent. My friends, we are falling behind the rest of the world, and fast.
The 2009 “Program for International Student Assessment, which tested: 15 year old students around the world, showed the U.S. ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading out of the 34 leading economically developed countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development placed the United States 18th among the 36 nations examined in their study. And another study had the U.S. 33rd in reading, 27th in math and 22nd in science.
The New Jersey teachers union recently touted the performance of our schools as better than average in the U.S. But the real story is the fact that when they brag that in math, for instance, 31 percent of the state’s high school seniors were proficient or better, as opposed to the national average of 25 percent, it really shows how bad our national situation is. That means 69 percent of New Jersey high school seniors and 75 percent of them nationally, aren’t proficient. How did even they get to be seniors?
It seems like it doesn’t take much to graduate from high school anymore. One area community college reported that 99.4 percent of incoming freshmen had to take remedial courses to get up to speed for college work. That means our high schools are graduating kids who aren’t even at the 10th grade level, let alone know what a high school senior should know.
These are not only a list of statistics, but a recipe for the downfall of our country as a world power. When the other countries around the world have a smarter, better-educated population, they will surpass us in every way; business, job creation, inventions, technology, etc. If we don’t fix this, we are going to turn into a second rate country.
President Obama realizes this, and last week he had a summit with Bill Gates in which he gave a speech about putting more money into education. He also increased spending in education in his recent budget proposal stating that this is an area we can’t afford to let go.
Unfortunately, he’s stuck in the old, politics-as-usual solution of throwing money at the problem. Now I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of complaining about how high teacher salaries are, but the fact is our teachers and school administrators are the highest paid they’ve ever been. New Jersey teachers are the fourth highest paid in the country. And the administrators make even more, with 235 in this state making more than the governor’s $175,000 salary.
Teachers pay rose an average of 5 to 9 percent annually from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, and 3.75 percent since. They also got the best pension and benefit plans. In New York, a teacher can retire at age 55 at 60 percent of their salary (usually $60,000 to $70,000 a year) with free health care for life.
Again, I’m not jumping on the teachers; I only want to point out that putting more money into the system isn’t going to help. In fact, as spending has risen, our students have actually done worse.
The answer isn’t spending more on education. The answer lies in analyzing the following two stories.
Last year a Hispanic high school student died in a tragic car accident on Route 80. He was a star athlete, but what shocked the students at his high school was that he was an honor student. He had hid fact that from all but his closest friends, for fear of being considered “uncool.”
I was listening to a sports talk show hosted by Hugh Douglas, the former all-pro football player for the Jets and Eagles. He explained he had recently pulled his kids out of public school and enrolled them in a private school, because they were being chastised and bullied by their friends for getting good grades. There was actually peer pressure to not be a good student!
The moral of these two situations is obvious. The solution lies in trying to make education “cool” again. No matter how much you pay teachers, and spend money on computers and have smaller class sizes, it won’t help if the kids don’t want to learn. The old adage, “you can lead a horse to water…”
Back in the first part of the last century, many high school students worked their tails off to be the first in their family to graduate high school. They had immigrant parents, or parents who were laborers and didn’t get an education. It was considered an impressive badge of honor to get that high school degree.
And it was the same with college. The vast majority of college graduates in the 20th century were the first in their family to go to college. It was the highest honor; the “coolest” thing one could do.
So how do we recapture that spirit? That’s where the politicians come in. Instead of continuing to throw more and more money down the bottomless pit of the education establishment, they need to show some real leadership and help change the culture of American youth. Whether it’s using rock stars or athletes, or making it harder to get through high school so that it will become something to be proud of, they must lead the way to a spirit where we will once again be training the leaders of the next generation to be innovators and world leaders. Right now those leaders are coming from other countries. We need to step up to the plate, or step down into the second tier of nations. So far, that’s where we’re rapidly headed.