The American Century, Part II: Education

By Carlo Barbieri with Sam Tett

The United States is poised to become the leading world power of the 21st century, but our position is precarious; there are many hurdles and pitfalls to consider in attempting to maintain, and perhaps even increase, this power –especially given the current state of the nation.

Education has long been a subject of heated debate in America, and well may it be so; it is perhaps the single most important issue with regard to our future, and yet we have somehow slipped down the international ranking scale over the past few years coming to rest at 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th (out of 34) in mathematics, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These figures earn us the underwhelming title of “average” overall, which could mean trouble ahead for the United States.

This trend continues well into higher education, with the U.S. now coming in 9th for college graduation rate rankings. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has acknowledged his shock at these new statistics, and insists on the importance improving our national standing. Mr. Duncan’s alarm is well founded: the country’s next generation of great leaders – our new inventors, visionaries, and political spokesmen – are out there as we speak, navigating our educational system. They’re in our public primary and secondary schools, our colleges and graduate schools. We must invest in their success in order to protect our longevity as a powerful nation. There are also many would-be leaders whose potential will be wasted because of the inconsistencies and inequalities that pollute the heart of our educational system as it now stands.

Ironically, teachers unions tend to pose a threat to progress in education, often focusing on protecting teachers’ careers at the expense of students’ success. The “last in, first out” policy, for example, which is still employed in many states, dictates that the newest teachers in the system are the first to be laid off in the event of budget cuts. By protecting seniority without reference to classroom impact, this practice does not have our children’s best interests at heart. It is not only seasoned veterans, but also vibrant, young, new hires that are capable of inspiring our kids to learn. And yet the teachers unions caused an almighty ruckus recently, staging a full out rally in D.C.’s Freedom Plaza in an attempt to keep the “last in, first out” principle in place. Schools are primarily educational centers for students, are they not? Policy should reflect that.

In addition to “last in, first out,” there is a general lack of encouragement for public school teachers to keep up the good work, despite the vital role they play in our country’s future. If the government instituted a bonus program for teachers displaying incomparable classroom impact, we could reward our most excellent teachers while also motivating the others to excel. Funds are hard to come by, no doubt – but since there is almost nothing more important for success than education, a sounder national investment can scarcely be made.

Besides more student-based policy, there must also be a push towards a more well-rounded education in our schools. The “No Child Left Behind” policies did a great deal of damage, resulting not only in a lowering of academic standards, but also in a narrowing of curriculum. Due to the unforgiving nature of this policy, schools hastily limited what they were teaching their students in desperate attempts to “pass” the specified standards. It became top priority just to “get by” unscathed, and it is a well-known fact that academic excellence was often lost in the fray. America’s next generations need to be good at everything if the nation expects to maintain its national position. Science and Mathematics are important, but so are foreign languages, the arts, social studies, and physical education, among many others.

In-keeping with this holistic approach to education, schools must be given the funds to introduce the latest trends in technology to students at the primary and secondary levels. This is absolutely vital to our success as a powerful nation; by familiarizing our children with technology at a young age, we provide the United States with a competitive edge in technology over the years to come. Technology advances dramatically every year, and it is crucial that we strive to be at the forefront of this development.

As for higher education; one of the largest problems we face is that a college level education is simply not affordable, often coming with a six-figure price tag, and many promising students are never afforded the opportunity to fulfill their enormous potential. Furthermore, the broken state of our public school system places college out of academic reach for underprivileged students from the start of their educational careers. This is not only unfair, but it is also bad national policy; the country deprives itself of vital talent this way. We need to see reforms in education from start to finish; from kindergarten through college, in order to begin preparing the United States for continued world leadership. If we continue to skimp on the quality of public education, we will condemn both our children and our country to failure.

By Carlo Barbieri