Waiting for Superman or Godot?

It's not news to say that our educational system is at risk. The problem is that things are getting worse rather than better. The precariousness of the system is exacerbated by the reluctance at all levels of government to recognize the magnitude and consequences of this disease, to determine its causes, and to do the serious work needed to cure it. The paradox in the American educational system is that at its apex -- at the great American research universities -- we are the very best in the world, while we simultaneously are suffering, along with most of the Western post-industrial societies, from a deteriorating K-12 system that simply is not functioning in a way that will fulfill our society's needs in the 21st century.

Education nourishes the health of every institution in our country, and its quality will have much to do with the longer-term health of those other institutions. If over half the nation's children are incapable of solving simple mathematical problems; are incapable of using our language appropriately; are incapable of understanding how to solve problems; are incapable of learning enough to make considered choices during elections that reflect their interests; are incapable of critical reasoning skills; then family, business, politics, and the health of individuals suffer -- and the society begins to deteriorate.

We can attribute some of this abysmal condition to the responses of states and the federal government to the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. We can fool ourselves into believing that when the economy becomes robust once again, these problems will disappear. We can believe that excellence can be obtained without paying for it. We can delude ourselves into believing the old adage that "necessity is the mother of invention," and we'll come to grips and solve these educational problems when we truly have to. But, such beliefs are illusory. Surely mindless cuts in K-12 and higher education budgets that are part of general cost saving measures in states facing severe budget shortfalls provide immediate and critical evidence of a lack of understanding of the central importance of education in our lives. But the origins or etiology of this multi-dimensional education mess goes back farther and has deeper roots than the recent financial tsunami. Identifying the causes for the broken educational system is no easier, and perhaps equally elusive, as finding cures for diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS, and Parkinson's. Without any effort at completeness in understanding, which I'm sure we do not yet possess, here are a few factors that contribute to the multidimensional problem.

Consider first some symptoms rather than causes. Perhaps the most referenced symptom is the comparative performance of the United States youngsters versus those in other nations on math and science examinations at grade levels four and eight. American students consistently score far below Asian students of comparable age on mathematics and science achievement examinations. Within the last week, on December 7, 2010, the Program on International Student Assessment (PISA) of the OECD reported the results of tests in math, science, and reading taken by 15-year-old students in 65 countries. American students again did not distinguish themselves -- 30 countries, for example, had math scores higher than those of U.S. students. If there was any shocking finding it was that the Chinese students living in Shanghai, one of the most educationally and economically advanced cities in China to be sure, were included for the first time and essentially blew away the rest of the competition with scores that made the U.S. students look second-rate. The value of these test results is often questioned as a measure of rote learning rather than creative thinking. Some nations do, in fact, emphasize rote learning rather than the development of critical reasoning skills. At most American schools it is unclear whether we emphasize either. While basic reading and quantitative skills are critically important foundations for the nation's need to fit its longer-term employment needs with skill levels of its population, teaching to the test rather than reforming what we teach and how we teach young students to think analytically and critically for themselves won't solve our national needs. Nonetheless, the PISA results represent a shot across the bow. We cannot simply dismiss them. The Chinese and other Asian societies are training millions of their young students in basic skills (including requiring English of every student); we are doing far less well, as are most of the European nations. Certain basic skills are necessary before worrying about creativity and innovation.

There are other disturbing symptomatic facts: 69 percent of United States public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught mathematics by a teacher without a degree or certificate in mathematics... [And] 93 percent of United States public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught the physical sciences by a teacher without a degree or certificate in the physical sciences; the United States now ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of its students who earn bachelor's degrees in science or engineering; we rank 20th among industrialized countries in high school completion rates, 16th in college completion rates.1 What flows from all of this? Forty-nine percent of adults in the United States do not know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. This level of ignorance, which has nothing to do with analytic ability, extends far beyond science and technology. Only about six in 10 Americans can correctly identify Joe Biden as the nation's current vice president; atheists and agnostics demonstrate greater knowledge of the Bible's content than Catholics and Protestants. In short, the relatively low level of scientific, mathematical, and general literacy in the United States is alarming and it is not improving. In fact, these levels of knowledge are closely correlated with the educational achievement of those who occupy these classifications.

These are consequences of the disease we must fight, but we can't infer the causes of the disease from its consequences. Let me suggest several causes (leaving others to forthcoming postings), some of which have been studied for many years -- but which are not sufficiently incorporated into the public mind and social policy. The education disease is caused, in part, by the relative weights that Americans place on a set of personal values, of which scholarly achievement is not at the top of their hierarchy, except in some subgroups of the population, for example, Asian Americans and Jewish Americans, as well as those who already occupy prestigious occupational and income positions in the United States.

James S. Coleman, the renowned sociologist, identified this problem in his 1961 book, The Adolescent Society. Despite the need for a greater emphasis on educational achievement, there was an emerging independent "society of adolescents," an adolescent culture in which educational achievement was less important than students focus on cars, dates, sports, popular music, and other matters just as unrelated to schools. This was and still is reinforced by parents of these youngsters who spend more time at local football games than reading books and discussing them with their children, or for that matter, talking to them about art, music, or science. Add social networking, the use of new technology, and a few contemporary school inventions of extra-curricular activities and not too much has changed in the hierarchy of values since the 1950s. Star athletes, cheerleaders, and the most popular youngsters still represent "the leading crowd" at our elementary and high schools, rather than the nerds who are separated into special "gifted" classes and viewed as incomprehensible objects by most in the schools -- rather than the local heroes. The continuing ambivalence of Americans to expertise and the intellect -- the periodic explosion of anti-intellectualism in our country is testimony to the insufficient value placed on learning and the learned. Of course, we can all point to fantastic schools, some public and others private, where academic ability is honored and admired, but that is not the norm. We are fortunate that our nation is large enough that the absolute number of highly motivated, strongly educated youngsters continue to innovate and perform highly skilled jobs, but that gap between the number needed and the number we are educating, particularly in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering, is growing rapidly.

In an even more important 1966 report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, Coleman found, contrary to his and others' expectations, that the social composition of the school, the quality of the facilities, and the quality of the teachers, were far less important factors in a student's educational achievement than were the influences of their families and the values that family members placed on educational success. This seems to be still true today -- as demonstrated in countless empirical studies of the process of social mobility through the educational system. The absence of adequate emphasis on families also comes to light in the recent, highly acclaimed documentary film by Davis Guggenheim, Waiting for 'Superman', which focuses on how the charismatic educator, Geoffrey Canada, takes Harlem youngsters and with the right school facilities and a set of dedicated teachers produces highly successful students who go on to college.

There is much to praise in Guggenheim's film: its critique of the public school system is largely on target; its harsh treatment of the teachers' unions is spot on in depicting their intransigence over 50 years to change: their resistance and unwillingness to abandon a tired trade union mentality in favor of a merit based systems of rewards and recognition for excellence in teaching. Yes, highly dedicated, remarkable teachers working in a nurturing environment with a limited number of students in each class, can change the lives of receptive youngsters forever. But by being mesmerized by the charismatic character of Canada, what Guggenheim failed to highlight and emphasize sufficiently (and most critics failed to note) was the extraordinary quality and devotion and sacrifices of the African-American parents, especially mothers (often single mothers) who were fighting for the lives of their children.

They were fighting -- often against great odds -- to give their children what they believed was the most precious gift they could give them -- a quality education that would free their children from the constraints of their neighborhoods and to expand their effective scopes and horizons so that their children would experience things that these dedicated parents could hardly imagine. This message was at the center of this film -- and the moving agony is palpable of most of those dedicated parents losing the lottery that would have opened the doors for their youngsters to one of the prized schools -- dashing in the process their sense of hope. Ironically, the key to changing educational outcomes lies not only in the schools but also in our homes. It is distressing to see critics of parent's lack of effort in instilling the value of knowledge and education in their children get kicked in the face for their criticism. Until we can transform the relative value families place on educational achievement, efforts to reform the curricula and the types of teachers in the schools, while marginally making a difference, are not apt to do much to cure the larger educational maladies that we suffer from.

Another cause of our failures is, of course, the way we go about educating most of our children. No Child Left Behind type programs almost invariably emphasize how much information children have assimilated and whether they are able, even by rote learning and without real understanding, to solve a simple equation. Perhaps this is a necessary, but surely not a sufficient condition for a well-functioning educational system. Teaching to the test, whether it is for fourth grade math students, or advanced placement applicants to college, does not teach students how to think or challenge them about how one might go about solving a difficult problem. Can youngsters learn to ask questions for which there are no answers at the back of the book? Can they learn, by whatever methods they are capable of using, how to solve problems without relying on formulaic learning? Rewarding youngsters for the way they think about problems and how they go about solving them rather than simply for getting a correct answer needs to be more pervasive in our educational system. The process of inquiry is in many ways as important as the outcome. The distinction I'm trying to make can be illustrated in an often-told anecdote around Columbia University about the great American physicist, Isidor Isaac Rabi. The story has it that Rabi was visiting his mother's home in Brooklyn, celebrating Friday night Shabbat services, when he received a call from Stockholm. When he hung up the phone, he turned to his diminutive 90-year-old mother and said: "Ma Ma, I just received a call telling me that I had won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Rabi's mother looked him straight in the eye and with her Yiddish accent said: "Son, did you ask a good question?"

1 As reported in Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2010. The PISA results were reported in The New York Times on December 7, 2010.