When it comes to the state of American education, we know the problems and remedies but there’s no sugar to help the medicine go down. And, typically, the patient refuses to swallow.
Here is a brief diagnosis. The reason American students are falling behind their peers in other industrialized countries is because:
1). We need better trained teachers. Especially in math and science where few teachers have majored in these subjects or are properly equipped to teach them. The United States needs to revamp teacher training, make it more rigorous and raise the bar on admittance. We should be aiming for the top third college graduates instead of the present bottom third. The medicine: teacher unions should relent on their opposition to merit pay and be more supportive of reforms to improve evaluation and remove failing teachers. The other bitter pill: good teachers need to make more money and teaching as a profession needs to be up there with lawyers and doctors as a respected and sought-after occupation. But it’s not just the fault of inadequate teaching. And teachers are sick and tired of getting all the blame.
2). We need students to take their education more seriously. According to Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, asks: “ Are we falling behind as a country in education not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?”
High school kids complain about the six to eight hours of homework they get a night. But is it really six to eight hours or does it just take that long because of the study breaks via Facebook, texting, etc. Parents complain about the homework, while some students just don’t do the work. Here’s a true story: Student A attended a local high school. Her best friend B, came from South Korea. B was taking a year off from her South Korean studies to attend a high-achieving high school in the United States. The young woman would do her U.S. homework in about an hour or two and then finish off the evening by doing South Korean homework so she could keep up on her return home. What’s so scary is that A, very bright and with good grades, would spend about eight hours doing the same assignments. Was she texting in between or just not as smart as her friend? I bet it was the former.
The medicine: parents and teachers need to revere and support education the way they revere sports. They need to be willing to have the self-discipline to work hard every day. Because if you are not good, you are not going to make the team. Sports is the one area in education where meritocracy still counts. You don’t get on the A team if you can’t play.
3). We need students to spend more time on task: If we treated education as we treat sports, students would be spending more time in school. You don’t get to be or remain a good athlete unless you practice, practice, practice. Our California students spend only 180 days in school a year. That’s just half a year. Meanwhile, students in other countries have longer school days and spend more days in school per year. More time in school means more money for staff. That’s the bitter pill.
4). We need to further the talents of our very brightest students. Too many mathematically gifted kids are bored in the classroom. Too many educators feel bright kids can fend for themselves. Acceleration and tracking, once tools for dealing with the gifted, are now in most cases unacceptable. The medicine: we need special attention paid to those who need extra help as well as special attention to those whose full potential is being ignored.
5). We need more and better preschool for all children. This is the one area where there is progress. Politicians all over the country starting with the president are singing this song (Will devote a future column to what’s happening in our county, Oklahoma and other states).
Reluctantly, this is a negative picture of American education. Yet you go into a classroom and witness a teacher working his/her magic and students doing incredible things. In many places, including San Mateo County, there’s a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. It’s a work in progress.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.