Think globally to reform education

Posted 12/10/10

I've been accumulating strong opinions about K-12 public education over the past few years. Let me try to do three things this week: lay out what the …

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Think globally to reform education


I've been accumulating strong opinions about K-12 public education over the past few years. Let me try to do three things this week: lay out what the problem is, point out some of the key obstacles to reform, and offer a few of my own suggestions for creating a world class American education system.

The problem: according to a number of studies (see the Programme for International Assessment, for instance, which measures the educational achievement of 15-year-olds), the United States doesn't even make the top ten in reading ability, math or science.

A few months ago I reviewed a sample of world literacy studies. The conclusion was stark: the current generation of American students may be the first in the history of our nation to be less well-educated than its parents.

We wouldn't accept that kind of performance at the Olympics, where the United States does very well. But athletic performance won't help us compete in global economic markets.

And the issue is more than us winding up as the cheap, dumb labor of the world. We need smart people here at home, too.

Key obstacles: local control. This premise, this article of faith, seems to unite liberals and conservatives. But review the data above. It doesn't work.

When it comes to education, we are regularly outperformed by nations who adopt clear and consistent national standards. Comparing student performance within the state, or among states, just isn't good enough. There are Olympic educational standards, international benchmarks, and programs that work better than ours.

I would start with textbooks. American textbooks are almost uniformly bland, boring, overpriced, and bulky. We need a national library of short, clear, progressively more complex chapters, available to all, downloadable to any computer or ebook reader, easily printed into pamphlets.

Another obstacle: the enduring anti-intellectualism of our culture. Even within our schools, I see or hear about teachers, administrators and parents who don't approve of Gifted and Talented programs, or denigrate International Baccalaureate programs, yet do support competitive sports.

Studies done right here in Colorado demonstrate that one of the key predictors of academic success is the presence of a strong school library program. And yet the average age of the books in Colorado school libraries today is 15 years.

We know what works. And we don't do it.

Another obstacle: deliberately misleading politics. How often have you heard the statement, usually attempting to justify vouchers, "I should be able to use my tax money as I please. After all, it's my money!"

In 2009, my Douglas County School District property tax came to $700. If I'm going to claim $5,000 a year or so to send my son to a local Christian school, then I'm not just using my money. I'm using yours, too. I'm using a lot of people's.

Claiming public money to teach my children that, for instance, the world is only 6,000 years old and that evolution is false, not only violates the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion, but it also won't get us any closer to international competitiveness in the sciences. It's bad civics and bad educational policy.

So what to do about it all? I think we need to think globally. Let's stop blaming teachers for their failure to execute an incoherent educational policy.

Let's do what honest scientists and sports trainers do: look at the evidence.

Who does the best job educating their young, and how do we adapt their lessons and improve on them?

Right now, that isn't us.

Jamie LaRue is director of Douglas County Libraries. LaRue's Views are his own.


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