April 4, 2012 at 1:19 pm #157960
Last month the Council on Foreign Relations published a report co-authored by Joel I. Klein and Condoleezza Rice, titled, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security.” The report sounded a call to arms from its opening sentence.
“It will come as no surprise to most readers,” Klein and Rice wrote, “that America’s primary and secondary schools are widely seen as failing.”
The report has generated much controversy – including spirited dissents by members of the task force that produced it – among them Stephen Walt, Linda Darling-Hammond, Randi Weingarten, and others.
I blogged on it over at Reuters.com. What do you think? Is there a national security crisis in US K-12 education?
April 4, 2012 at 4:33 pm #157994
Gordon Lee SalmonParticipant
Thanks Zach for alerting us to this excellent report from the CFR. I feel too that our K-12 educational system is in poor shape and only getting worse. We need strong leaders, especially at the Principal and Superintendent levels, to begin the difficult process of transforming schools into 21st century learning environments. We need to teach kids essential skills in critical thinking,teamwork, inclusivity, problem-solving, collaboration, relationship building, innovation and creativity, and digital technology. Our children will need to learn how to learn and continually reinvent themselves in order to keep pace with the unremitting explosion of knowledge. They need to learn how to speak more than one language, appreciate and be curious about cultural differences with other global citizens, and live with an attitude of cooperation. They must learn how to be competitive for jobs that don’t yet exist. Sadly our schools fail to teach most of these skills now and we are rapidly falling further behind.
April 4, 2012 at 5:29 pm #157992
Gordon, This is K-12, remember. Much of what you describe, while undoubtedly important, can easily wait until after secondary school.
I’m happy to see kids leave high school that:
a) have no difficulty reading and writing, and can express themselves with a vocabulary >500 words;
b) have mastered basic mathematical skills to the level where they have options open and feel prepared to pursue additional skills in the area;
c) have a healthy outlook towards themselves, their age-mates and those younger and older, their community, and people different than themselves;
d) have some rudimentary knowledge of civics, and how communities and nations function;
e) have some rudimentary knowledge of the world around them, and its history, that extends beyond what has happened within their own lives and whatever is advanced to them by interest groups;
f) have some ability to evaluate information sources, and knowledge of how to find and compare them.
I think that’s a pretty tall order if you ask me. I also think that too many folks under-value “good enough”. “Good enough” is actually pretty cool, and we shouldn’t underestimate it, as long as our standards are reasonable. I’d rather have the education system squirting out 100% “good enough”, than 10% “world class” and the other 90% disappointing, disappointed, and disenfranchised.
I think what many forget is that education systems have been disappointing and “in crisis” for a very long time. Education exists principally to pass on that corpus of knowledge and skills considered important by the society that provides that education. Well, society keeps on changing, so education is perpetually lagging behind. It’s like complaining abut how your kids’ clothes don’t fit them anymore. They’re growing. It happens.
As for being able to “compete”, our world will not be theirs. They will remake the world in their own image.
April 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm #157990
Gordon Lee SalmonParticipant
Thanks Mark for your reply. I agree with the points you make and feel that they should be basic, minimal expectations we would have for any school. We still need to help develop skills that go beyond subject content because these are the things that can provide tools for future success. I disagree with your assumption that skill building can wait till after graduation. With good teachers, curricula can be designed that incorporates both subject content and skill development. Many examples from project based learning prove this out. I feel we need to do both if kids are going to be prepared to create a life of their own choosing which can be successful. They will truly remake the world in their own image- lets hope that we prepare them as soon as possible to do that effectively.
April 4, 2012 at 6:28 pm #157988
Without doubt, all the things you describe can be accomplished within the K-12 sphere. But as Paul Goodman noted so many years ago, there are many things we try and teach kids that require considerable effort and time at earlier ages, that can be accomplished in much less time and with fewer tears if we’re willing to wait a little longer to broach it. And many of the things you initially listed (collaborative learning, teamwork, problem-solving, etc.) would very likely come quite naturally during class-time if teachers were not in such a damn rush to race through the curriculum.
Here is a rhetorical question for you, though. Is “national security” best supported by having schools and teachers compete with each other, or learn to collaborate, support, and cooperate with each other? No Child Left Behind had the effect of pitting schools and school boards against each other. Did that approach end up helping education move in the right direction, or stall/hamper it? Is there any sort of societal benefit by broaching education as a competitive enterprise? Does competition serve the objectives as well as we might think it does?
April 4, 2012 at 7:00 pm #157986
I couldn’t find a reference, but I remember some concern in 2009 about the shrinking pool of eligible recruits because rejection rates were on the rise because candidates were not meeting the minimal education, physical fitness, and/or moral requirements.
It looks like DOD is still concerned about the phsical fitness of our citizens: “DOD Takes Steps to Combat Childhood Obesity,” and with the drawdown, it looks like the military is maintaining its selectivity, in that it is requiring a high school diploma: “Army to Enforce Standards, Retain Quality Soldiers During Drawdown.” With declining recruiting goals, the size of the recruiting pool may not be as much of a concern.
In responding to Zach’s question as to whether K-12 education is a national security crisis. I say, “No.” I think that the declining state of K-12 education is an influencer but should not be considered a part of national security. I’m concerned that the term “national security” is experiencing “definition creep.” In a recent article our economy was deemed a critical national security element, and we are now adding education? I can see the appeal of framing issues in terms of national security to raise its profile, but I’m dubious. That being said, I may be wrong in that in this tightly nested world, that we need to expand our definition of national security, but if this is case, I ask, “What should be the determining boundary, and what ought not to be considered a part of our national security?”
April 4, 2012 at 11:42 pm #157984
These are great points. A complex issue, with a lot of passion around it – as there should be. The stakes are high – the future of kids and, some will say, nations. I was concerned that Klein/Rice overplayed their hand – and forced ours at the same time. I’m not sure fixing education with an eye to national security requirements is going to fix what’s wrong with it. But it’s great to see smart, tough arguments like these. I keep on learning!
April 5, 2012 at 10:35 am #157982
The problem with linking K-12 education to national security is that it seems like a desperate ploy to game the budget system. Whenever a special interest group feels they have a weak argument for funding, they try to tie themselves to the “must fund” cause dejure. We saw this after 9/11 when almost every program in the federal government somehow became critical to Homeland Security, at least in the eyes of their advocates seeking funding. Protecting the nation tends to get funded first, even in an austerity environment, so as budgets become tighter, we hear of more and more causes that are critical to national security.
We should, by all means, fully fund education. But based on its own merits and not through backdoor national security arguments. We should also recognize the U.S. spends as much or more per child on education as any nation in the world. Our lack of results are not derived from a lack of funding.
April 5, 2012 at 11:04 am #157980
Agree, yet they made no call for funds. Steve Walt’s point in his dissent was exactly this – if its so NatSec urgent, where’s the beef?
April 5, 2012 at 2:28 pm #157978
While Peter’s comments about identifying “crises” when it suits one’s funding are spot-on, at the same time, I don’t think it is particularly wrong to look at education through a more integrative lens. I’d be curious to learn more about the history of public education in the western industrialized world. My sense is that the interconnectedness of public education, economic, and sovereignty/diplomacy concerns was less well-understood in the earliest days than it is now. We certainly see that interconnectedness when we look at developing nations, and realize how much of the economic and political turmoil in some of these places could be avoided if only there was more access to education.
On these shores, the issue of access is not QUITE as critical or problematic as it is in many other places, but that does not mean that education, economic and security/sovereignty concerns are no longer interconnected. You may not have a vitamin B deficiency that challenges your health right now, but that doesn’t change the importance of vitamin B in maintaining that health. One might reasonably make the claim that the decline of public education in civics poses a threat to democracy, by creating birth cohorts of people who misunderstand and hence mistrust government at any level. I mean, it’s not like the barbarians are at the gate, but it’s not exactly a healthy or promising situation either.
April 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm #157976
I’d posit that competition among American universities (grants, academic publishing, prestige draw) have had a tremendous advantages in producing quality and cutting-edge education. What hampers this from being of benefit at the K-12 levels?
I also don’t see that competition and collaborative learning/teamwork/problem-solving are mutually exclusive. For example, teaming and collaboration for competitive advantage and mutual interest already occurs among K-12 schools, universities, and the business community.
April 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm #157974
Certainly anything that negatively impacts upon a country’s financial and competitive health is, indeed, a security issue, and that’ is the case with education, and, for that matter, the West’s insane reliance on petroleum products.
What’ interesting, though is that it is perhaps the very focus on “thinking skills” and other similar concepts in education that could be part of the huge problem that is coming home to roost. The shift to the “learning to learn”, movement, as Gordon describes below, is so lopsided, it’s created a serious additional problem. We need to remember that THOUGHT involves two elements — the process, which Gordon Salmon talks about, AND the CONTENT on which to operate.
Developing people who can “think” actually makes no sense on its own. It’s like the relationships between data analysis and the data. One can have all the data analysis abilities one wants, but if the data on which it operates is poor or faulty, it’s all for nought. We’ve focused on process far too long in education, while other countries have focused more on content, and knowledge, and I believe that’s one reason why countries like India and China are skunking the West in terms of creating economic advantage through education, and will continue to do so.
(obviously other issues equally as important to explain that phenomenon).
While learning content has been frowned upon for a long time in the West, it’s a devil’s bargain, and it doesn’t work in financial and economic terms.
Short of an initiative a la the Sputnik reaction back in the sixties, lead by a leader who can return the culture’s focus on learning for its own sake, and not to “get a job”, it is, frankly, over, for the West, and for the USA in particular.
The scary part is that this has been going on for several decades, an outcropping of the humanistic movement in the 60’s.
April 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm #157972
One argument about the cost of American education is that it’s higher than many other countries because of the diversity that has to be accomodated. I don’t know if I buy the argument or not, but it’s certainly, on the surface of it, something that needs to be considered.
April 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm #157970
You make good points about the “drift” issue, but I keep wondering what it will take to move this issue and some other issues related to a potential decline in American influence and standard of living from the oblivious area to one where it really catches the attention, fascination and commitment of the American people, as well as its leaders.
One only has to look at the collapse of the USSR to see how closely economics and national security are intertwined, and also with culture. You cannot create “national security” even in the more narrow traditional senses when you can no longer compete on the world economic stage. It’s no coincidence that the decline of military and diplomatic power and influence in countries like England, USSR, and now the USA correlate with and are perhaps caused by economic woes that are so fundamental and culturally controlled that they can no longer be fixed.
April 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm #157968
One question worth considering is whether it’s possible to do both subject content and skill development across the entire school system, and do it successfully. “Projects” only show it can be done within a limited context. And it’s a big leap from doing it small, and doing it universally. I just don’t know. Maybe it will always be a case of balance, more than one or the other.
April 5, 2012 at 4:49 pm #157966
It’s a pendulum that swings back and forth. Consider science education at the primary, middle and secondary levels. There is little gained, other than skill at Trivial Pursuit, when “science” is taught as simply a corpus of factoids about a variety of neatly partitioned content domains. At the same time, an education system that hatches students who have some sort of instruction in “scientific reasoning” without anything material to harness those reasoning skills to, is similarly disappointing. The trick lies in finding a curriculum, sustainable delivery system, and competent deliverers, that aim for a practical balance.
The HARD trick lies in getting the sort of parental and societal support for that.
I may have mentioned in past the popular phrase amongst Korean youth I was introuced to a decade back: “Four pass, five fail”. The phrase refers to the number of hours of sleep one may permit oneself to luxuriate in during the months of preparation for the highly competitive university entrance exams. Four hours a night is considered the practical maximum. Are these youth working a 15-18hr job in tandem with attendance at high school in order to support their consumer patterns? Unlikely. Here, we bend over backwards to accommodate youth’s ability to provide a willing market for consumer goods, by arranging for them to have more disposable cash rather than arranging for them to devote themselves more to education.
I’m not saying the Koreans “have it right” (and suicide attempts can attest to that). I’m saying that we should not think of this ONLY in terms of “the education system”. That system exists within a broader social ecology that either supports THIS set of objectives, or THOSE, but not both. It takes two for this tango, and education is only one of the dancers.
April 5, 2012 at 7:28 pm #157964
Couldn’t agree more. Our older son attended a parochial school for a few years, for as long as we could afford it. I wouldn’t say the quality of instruction or instructors was higher, or the students that much better, but the classroom was more homogenous than the public system, and akin to what I experienced at a comparable age in the public system. That is not any sort of argument for private schools, or against immigration, or any such nonsense. Rather, the more within-class variance, the harder it is to accomplish the same objectives with the sorts of student-teacher ratios that would have been completely acceptable 45 years ago. And I expect as well, the harder it becomes for any sort of generic training to fully prepare a new teacher for what awaits them.
And without launching into a “kids today!” tirade, do consider the generational differences in compliance to authority and cooperation. We weren’t angels in grade 5 and 6, but we had a class of 44, and that was considered manageable. I don’t know that any contemporary teacher could expect the level of compliance that made such a ratio feasible, and its not like A.D.D. didn’t exist before it started getting diagnosed. Our older son was in the first cohort that had publicly-funded kindergarten in one of the Canadian provinces. At the end of Grade 1, his teacher told me “In the 25 years that I’ve been teaching this grade, this year was the most I’ve ever been able to accomplish, mostly because the kids were willing to sit, and weren’t breaking down in tears.”
As someone whose training is in human development, I find fascinating the whole area of how children come to grasp social ritual and collective action. We take for granted the notion that a group of a few dozen young people are going to sit in place, and cooperate on the same activity concurrently. They certainly aren’t born that way. So how’d they get like that? How does a child come to grasp what to do, and the legitimacy of it, when their parent turns and says “Sssshhh, we need to keep quiet now, we’re in church”? The sorts of compliance that makes collective exercises like classroom instruction and school systems possible is not a given. It’s built from the ground up.
April 5, 2012 at 9:04 pm #157962
Great question about what the catalyst would need to be to inspire attention, or better yet galvanize the American populace to an awakening — Economics may do it, an attack (outside threat) may do it. Then again, I’d rather see us be inspired rather than driven to action.
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