Posted by: dstieglitz | September 29, 2011

Life Long Education

   To maintain its position as the world’s most innovative and productive economy, the U.S. must create millions of jobs in new industries and educate people to fill them! The $447 billion so-called “American Jobs Act” that cuts payroll taxes, extends unemployment benefits, and builds a few bridges and schools does neither. A national educational policy from Congress would help, but such a policy is as unlikely as a Federal budget for FY2012 or a national energy policy, immigration policy or transportation policy. But I digress – this article is about education. Educating people means more than K-12 improvements and universal access to college, it requires a life-long training system that also includes:

  • A revitalized Head Start Program for pre-school kids,
  • Vocational options in grades 9-12,
  • Mandatory retraining linked to extended unemployment benefits, and
  • Extensive career refreshment training (like CPAs and attorneys already have).

Unfortunately, today’s school reforms are driven by educational administrators trying to cut budgets, politicians seeking reelection, and religious leaders spreading their beliefs – Who is focusing on training people to prosper in an ever-changing world? Businesses and governments must work together to make the necessary changes and pay for them. 

   U.S. Educational System Falls Behind. We live in a fast-changing technology-driven era, yet our educational system is an industrial-age relic. In the industrial age, learning pretty much ended when we finished high school or college. That model worked okay when people had the same job for their entire lives. But it fails miserably in an economy where new technologies can obliterate entire industries and leave workers unemployed with antiquated skills – look at printing, for example. In campaign speeches, President Obama says: “America won’t settle for #2.” But in fact the U.S. ranks #11 in Newsweek’s list of the top 100 countries. American students lag behind students in Singapore, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and five other countries in standardized math and science tests. Referring to the College Board’s grim report of a steep decline in Americans completing college, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, said: “We’ve flat-lined and other countries pass us by.” Once the world leader by a wide margin, in 2009 the U.S. dropped from 12th to 16th in that category. “The country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow,” Duncan added. A study by McKinsey & Company agreed and said: “the widening gap in education between the U.S. and other countries is the economic equivalent of a permanent recession.” China, graduates more engineers and scientists every year and registers more patents than the U.S., two factors that are likely to propel their GDP past the U.S. by 2018. 

   Recruiting & Rewarding Teachers.  Multiple studies show that the quality of teachers is more important to learning than budget-per-student, class size, or curriculum. You’d think that would push Congress into action to make U.S. teachers the best in the world. The problem starts long before a teacher enters his or her first classroom. In Singapore, the mandatory teacher training program (the U.S. has no equivalent) only accepts teachers who graduate in the top third of their class. In the U.S., only 23% of 2010’s new teachers were in the top third of their class. One issue is evaluating teacher performance to reward good teachers and fire bad ones. Race-to-the-Top, a $4.3 billion program funded under the 2009 Stimulus Act, rewards states that evaluate teachers in better ways. In addition, billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have made huge donations to public schools to promote pay-for-performance programs. They believe that merit pay creates the same incentives for teachers that bonus programs do in the private sector. Such cooperation between government agencies and businesses give cause for hope, but states are ignoring the No Child Left Behind Act because Congress has declined to fix the parts that aren’t working. 

   The Problem Begins at Home. On the other hand, don’t expect teachers to work miracles. There is little a teacher can do to deal with the challenges students face at home such as abuse, single-parent households, and mental health issues. The growing poverty rate exacerbates the problem because poverty limits a child’s ability to learn in subtle ways like untreated eyesight or hearing problems, and chronic asthma. Attacking teachers helps people feel like reformers, but the problems begin before children go to school. So life-long education must start by helping pre-schoolers in struggling families. 

   Are Charter Schools an Answer? President Obama supports charter schools (taxpayer-supported schools that operate outside the public school system) and wants more. He said: “state limits on charter schools aren’t good for our children, our economy, or our country.” About 1.5 million children, roughly 3% of all students, currently attend a charter school. Nationwide, nearly half of all charter schools have test scores the same as the local public schools; one-third have results that are worse; and 20% outperform nearby public schools, especially in cities – but that is probably related to the students they attract. Charter school students are generally highly motivated – after all, their parents endured a difficult admissions process just to get them in. But preferentially having better students in charter schools may leave inner-city public schools with the students who are least able to learn and most susceptible to dropping out. Charter schools may have a long-term role, but they’re not a panacea. 

   The Evolving University System. Today, U.S. colleges are the best in the world – they hold the first five spots in the Times’ Higher Education Rankings, and 18 of the top 25 positions. U.S. colleges employ 70% of the living Nobel prize-winners in economics and science, and publish a high percentage of the technical articles in prestigious academic journals. Their excellence enables U.S. colleges to attract extraordinary numbers of foreign students who pay full tuition. So where’s the problem? We’re educating the world at the expense of our own citizens! For decades, college costs have grown faster than American’s ability to pay them. Household income has grown 6.5 times since 1970, but the cost of attending a public college has increased by a factor of 15 for in-state and 24 for out-of-state students. Like governments, administrative costs per student have skyrocketed by 300%; and like businesses, many college presidents act like corporate CEOs with annual salaries, perks and staffs to match. 

   Attracting the Best & Brightest. Unfortunately, the U.S. won’t be the world’s largest economy for much longer – China’s climb to #1 is just a matter of time. That isn’t a problem in itself, except it means the U.S. can no longer rely on its massive economy to attract the world’s brightest and most ambitious entrepreneurs – they have other options. The U.S. needs to create several new industries that employ millions of people to get us out of the current financial mess – and smart immigrants would help. Since 9/11, we’ve made it very hard for them to immigrate. A good place to start is for Congress to endorse the idea that every non-citizen who earns a college degree in the U.S. should have a green card stapled to his or her diploma. The cost of that would be zero and the impact on job creation would be enormous.

   Reduced Emphasis on College. “Go to college!” has been a mantra in my family for generations; but with the rising cost of college and changing nature of jobs, a 4-year degree doesn’t work for everyone. A recent Harvard report argued that trade apprenticeships, vocational training, and technical training outside classrooms would grow the U.S. economy and reduce unemployment. Many of the four million job openings that have been unfilled more than 30 days require technical training, – not a 4-year degree. Public school systems and businesses must cooperate to offer vocational and technical training in high school, augmented by work-study programs. Such an approach will provide some income and simultaneously show high school students what businesses want and how to market their skills. 

   Unemployment and Re-Education. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections confirm the need for alternative educational programs. For example, food service and financial examiners are among the professions the BLS projects will provide many new jobs – neither requires a college degree. Health care is another industry with favorable job creation prospects. As pressure to reduce costs intensifies, tasks previously performed by doctors and nurses are now being done by physician assistants, medical assistants, and physical therapists. Unemployment is the Achilles heel of the U.S. economy right now, so job creation must be the focus of educational initiatives. Some job hunters are adapting by settling for positions that don’t pay as much as their former jobs, or that stretch their skills. This’s where enlightened government policies would help. Specifically, anyone unemployed beyond the core 26 weeks should be required to participate in a training program as the condition for unemployment payments up to 99 weeks. Further, businesses should provide training that suits their employment requirements – free-of-cost to the government and the unemployed students. 

   Make Education a Game.  One popular reform is making learning an entirely on-line experience and declaring textbooks to be obsolete. In professional training, on-line media have widely replaced presentations and classrooms. From pre-school to grad-school, students find on-line training to be more engaging because it cultivates imagination, curiosity and gamesmanship – three features missing in the old-fashioned textbook-and-test model. These three features are common in the multi-player, on-line, role-playing games that my grandsons are hooked on. In on-line media, learning and testing happen concurrently as students find, evaluate and share information. Unlike midterms and final exams, games encourage trial-and-error and make learning fun. Basic subjects such as math, science and social studies fit neatly into a virtual-game world – and reading skills improve as a by-product. Furthermore, students learn problem-solving, rule-based thinking, and strategic planning skills that are difficult to get out of a textbook. Admittedly, discussion subjects (e.g., humanities) are a stretch. For example, it will be more difficult to grasp the subtleties of Shakespeare=s Julius Caesar in an on-line environment. Gamified learning is still experimental, but it illustrates the kind of improvements our educational system needs to revitalize the economy and re-employ Americans in today’s technology-driven times.


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