Investing in Educated Innovation

In his State of the Union message this week, President Obama called for a number of governmental investments that would have a long-term positive impact on the nation. While acknowledging the need for fiscal restraint generally, he proposed these initiatives because he understood them to be crucial to making America more competitive and our democracy more robust. This has to be, the president underscored, "our Sputnik moment." Given the emphasis on building long-term competitiveness and democracy, it's no wonder that one of the most important of these initiatives is education reform.

The president rightly pointed to K-12 school reform as key to our economic and cultural health. He touted his "race-to-the-top" competitive programs for having inspired states to raise their educational standards and innovate at a rate that far exceeds what one might have expected given the actual amount of government spending. Obama paid his respects to the hard-working teachers across the land because "the biggest impact on a child's success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom." This received a round of applause from those in attendance, but he got an even more enthusiastic response when he noted that teachers must also be held accountable for their performance. Teaching is a vital, serious business. Become a teacher, he urged: "your country needs you."

Obama has often repeated his goal for K-12 education: college preparedness. He wants America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

As a teacher and college president, I was cheered by Obama's speech, and I applaud his efforts to invest in the future rather than impose austerity on the most needy right now. But given the controversy about college learning that surrounded the publication of Richard Arum's and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift this week, it seemed more than a little strange to hear college-preparedness used as the measure of school effectiveness. The authors of Academically Adrift have studied how the first two years of college affect some basic skills, and they have found little to cheer about. The dramatic statistics reported in the press show that many students just aren't learning how to write, to think critically, or to engage in complex reasoning. Why make college the goal if students aren't going to learn very much when they get there?

The defensive and predictable responses to Arum and Roksa's work were quick to arrive. Were their samples adequate, and were the tests really getting at the skills they claimed to be evaluating? Critics and commentators noted that colleges have a hard time providing a robust curriculum when they are admitting students who are either sub-literate or chiefly adept at the rote learning appropriate for standardized tests. Be that as it may, Academically Adrift should remind us educators that we must regularly evaluate whether our students are in fact learning what we say our programs teach. This means that we must interrogate not just our students but ourselves.

We teach better, many of us believe, when we teach subjects in which we are most engaged. That often means, though, that narrow research agendas are driving undergraduate curriculum development. We need to find out whether our students are being similarly engaged and are developing their intellectual capacities as a result.

If this time proves, in fact, to be our "Sputnik moment," it means that we are at last rising to the challenges of education in the contemporary world. It means that we will improve access to good teachers for students from all backgrounds and that we will give those teachers the tools they need to perform at the highest level. It means we will weed out poor teachers and close schools that have become "failure factories." At the college level, if this is our Sputnik moment, we will make our curricula challenging, broadly based and relevant to the lives our students will be leading after graduation. It means we will weed out faculty who don't teach effectively and close programs that fail to improve undergraduate learning. Across the entire education spectrum, it means we will pay our teachers and professors salaries commensurate with the enormous workload and responsibility that we expect them to carry. Good teachers deserve our respect and to be fairly compensated.

These challenges are daunting, but failure to invest in education would condemn us to continued erosion of our economic, democratic and cultural capacities. We can continue to be adrift, or we can navigate toward a future of educated innovation. It's time to make the choice.