It's Time for an American Culture of Education

It's often said that children are our most valuable natural resource, but what is their most valuable resource? The answer is simple: opportunity. Without opportunity, a child can't fully develop, can't thrive, can't succeed -- and the consequences for America if an entire generation of children is allowed to fall short of its potential simply cannot be overstated. It would mean nothing less than the loss of our standing as a global power and as a beacon of hope and enlightenment to many throughout the world. By providing our kids with the tools they need to reach any goal they can imagine for themselves, we ensure that our country maintains its technological and economic strength and its innovative and competitive edge. Everyone understands this, regardless of social standing, cultural upbringing, or political affiliation. So why aren't we standing together to do anything about it? Why are we content to let our kids down again and again? The fact is we shouldn't be.

The detailed statistics are there for anyone to read and we all know they're not pretty. According to a 2012 Pearson report, America ranks 17th in the developed world in education, well behind places like Finland, South Korea and Japan, as well as Poland, Germany and Australia. American students rank 27th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading comprehension compared to students in 27 industrialized countries, says the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The National Assessment of Educational Progress and Editorial Projects in Education, respectively, say that nearly three out of four 8th-12th graders aren't proficient in writing and 1.1-million high school students drop out every year. The reason for this, according to Pearson Chief Education Adviser Michael Barber, is that America lacks something intrinsic that higher-scoring countries don't: a "culture of education." What he means by that is that in other countries, not only are students encouraged to believe that being smart is both important and socially laudable, but teachers are held in extraordinarily high esteem.

No one will argue that we live in a country that may not necessarily devalue teachers but at the very least doesn't afford them the cultural status they so richly deserve. Of course there are teachers, particularly in our nation's public school system, who are overwhelmed, and there's a fierce and occasionally distracting debate over both the role of teachers' unions and public-vs.-private education. But despite many obstacles, most of our country's kindergarten-through-high school teachers are dedicated and truly want to see their students succeed, not simply be pushed through the system. So what is it that separates a place like, say, Shanghai -- which ranks at the top in most educational categories worldwide -- from the United States? The average class-size in Shanghai is 40 students, so it isn't the number of kids. Is it indeed that "culture of education?" Or is it something else as well? Could it be that the drive toward bold innovation we so often try to instill in our kids through education isn't being turned around and applied to education?

We know how to educate, because we have one of the most robust university systems in the world -- it's what draws millions from across the globe to our shores to learn -- yet for some reason we can't make that translate consistently to K-12. Over the past several years, some creative suggestions have been offered toward solving this problem, from nationwide apprenticeship programs like "Spark" -- which pairs children with mentors at a crucial age in their development to provide the necessary jolt of inspiration to push them forward -- to a systemic adjustment of classroom resources so that kids get more time on specific projects. Obviously, both of these ideas take not only a willingness to break the chains of tradition but a good amount of money. That's always been the magic word in education, because there's simply no way around the fact that if we want the immense pay-off a generation of educated children will provide for America, we first have to be willing to make a financial investment. There can't even be a debate about this.

The harrowing statistics and the overall educational crisis are like a monster whose tentacles reach into every one of our lives in one way or another. They affect not only our economy, which would see a combined savings and revenue of almost $8-billion per year if just 5% of all high school dropouts stayed in school and attended college, but our nation's crime rate as well. A high school dropout is nearly 20 times more likely to end up in prison than a college graduate -- and we already vastly outpace the world when it comes to incarceration rates. Kids don't want that kind of life -- that kind of future -- for themselves and we don't want it for them or for this country. We don't want to see what happens to everything from our national security to our national pride if we allow this problem to go on. Nowhere is it more important to -- in economic parlance -- turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle than in education.

A little bit of personal information: What you're reading right now was written by two brothers, one in high school, the other attending college, both in California. Over the past five years, through various philanthropic pursuits and our Foundation Boys initiative, we've helped to facilitate over one million dollars in grants to local non-profits while educating a new generation of potential donors and patrons. We do this because we believe in service and in making our country better and we understand that inspiring the youth is integral to this vision. The point of this essay isn't to lecture, to blame, or to shame, because not only are we in no position to do that, we certainly wouldn't wish to. While we may be optimistic, we're not naïve; we understand that political division and innate bureaucracy are difficult animals to tame, but is there really anything more worth putting our Left-Right differences aside for or overcoming institutional cynicism to solve? This is something we can all agree on. If you're conservative, you no doubt want to see children excel so that they go on to be the fuel for our economic engine, because a smart consumer is vital to healthy capitalism, and intellectual capital never depreciates; if you're progressive, you understand that education creates well-rounded, compassionate human beings who contribute to the betterment of society as a whole. Throughout this country's history, when it mattered most, our great democracy came together to fight for racial and social justice at home and against tyranny abroad. Why can't we fight for our own children?

As young people, we don't claim to have all the answers, although being close to the "front lines" maybe we stand a chance of being heard when we say that now is the time for a national call to arms on education. It's going to take effort from each and every one of us, but the reward is immeasurable. Our nation must come together on this and declare in a singular voice that every child deserves a chance to flourish and that we will not tolerate a broken system of education -- one that denies true opportunity to even a single kid -- for even a day longer.

Without opportunity, America's children -- our contemporaries -- cease to be its most valuable natural resource. And when that happens, the entire country loses. Doing whatever is necessary to improve our education system is something we owe to our kids -- and to ourselves.

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