I grew up knowing America was the greatest country on the planet, that it offered its citizens the most opportunities for advancement, that its judicial system was the fairest, that it had the best education system in the world, that its elected officials (usually) respected the rule of law, and that politics was about more than money. I was proud to be an American. I still am, but these things are no longer true. We need to make a fresh batch of Kool Aid. Times have changed.
How do you fit in this picture?
- Are you white?
- Did you grow up above the Mason-Dixon line or on the East or West Coast?
- Was your family’s home in a safe neighborhood?
- Were your parents university graduates?
- Were your parents business professionals or academics?
- Did you go to a private high school or boarding school?
- Did your parents have enough to pay for your college education?*
*If you’re under 50 and checked all those boxes you can be forgiven for believing as I did. The game is rigged in your favor. If you’re African-American, Hispanic, Muslim, or poor you have to work harder to grab the brass ring. It’s not impossible but you have to work harder.
Income inequality has divided America into two classes – upper and under. The top 20% in wealth can check almost all of the boxes. There are exceptions but here are the astonishing statistics:
In 2007 the richest 1% of the American population owned 35% of the country’s total wealth, and the next 19% owned 51%. Thus, the top 20% of Americans owned 85% of the country’s wealth and the bottom 80% of the population owned 15%.* (CNN Money, August 18, 2016)
Though the scales have fallen from my eyes I still believe in America’s goodness and inherent promise. We have work to do, but what could be more satisfying than working to restore America’s status as the best of the best. I believe education got us there in the first place and is the key to reclaiming it.
The full quote is:
“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing needless deaths and illness, and to fostering peace.”
I know the value of education, because I’m a product of public education, I know how to make the case for it and I know we can deliver quality education to the majority of Americans. My education came at time when public school was the norm and private school was for the privileged or religious. I graduated from a state university and state law school, both listed among the top schools in the nation and I paid less than $500 tuition per year. That’s not a typo though it seems like one when you look at tuition costs now.
Today, ten of our twelve grandchildren attend public school, but the schools are a mixed bag. Some are good; in affluent neighborhoods with generous well-educated parents. Some are marginal; in districts where resources are limited and parents less involved, and others are failing miserably in crumbling, poverty heavy neighborhoods.
Except for a few federal guidelines and some government dependents’ schools – military and foreign service – most public education is managed locally. There is no uniformity. Quality education should be a right not a crap shoot or a privilege. Today it’s not; American education is sliding down the scale behind that of other developed nations.
According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings developed by the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a consortium of 34 democracies with market economies, American students rank 25th out of 70 in science, 24th in reading, and 40th in math, but we spend more money than any of the other countries to get there.
Why am I beating this drum about public education? It’s because education is democracy’s most powerful weapon, and today American education is in the doldrums. Our higher education is the envy of the world, but we need to take back our leadership in elementary and secondary education. Like the race to the moon 50 years ago, it will require more than lip service. It will mean changing more than the number of teachers and classrooms. It will mean we have to address things like healthcare, poverty, immigration, infrastructure and transportation because these things are linked and at the core of what made America the best and most successful nation on earth 50 years ago.
The education crisis is not Donald Trump’s fault but his administration exemplifies everything wrong with America’s political, moral, and educational stature today. Narrow self-interest and xenophobic nativist patriotism emanates from the top. The White House is a hornet’s nest of greed and self-dealing. The First Family is enriching itself and the administration is redistributing wealth upward at our expense. Rich white men occupy almost every cabinet position, and Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, a rich white woman who never attended one is in charge of our public schools. These choices and these political leaders are not making good decisions for our country.
My neighbors, Gery and Laurie, were both teachers for 30+ years. Gery believes the basic problem is class size. Laurie is more nuanced. Other teacher friends have different ideas, but whatever the mechanics of recovery and reform are I believe we need to show teachers the respect they deserve by paying them the same as other professionals – the way they are compensated in other developed countries. If we did, university students would be able to choose teaching as their profession versus competing fields like law, medicine, engineering and business. We would be able to recruit and retain high quality teachers instead of relying on the altruism. The people teaching our children and grandchildren should not be asked to make alarming sacrifices in order to fulfill their roles in the classroom.
Here is another list of top ranked countries based on student-teacher ratios, length of time in school, and percentage of graduates with a quality education.*
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
*www.globalcitizen.org from the United Nations Human Development Report
This stuff isn’t sexy like the race to the moon, but if we want to be number one in education and reclaim our stature in the world we need to brew up a fresh batch of Kool Aid. The old stuff is stale and flat. We need something fresh if we’re going to climb back to our former ranking in the world. Right now it looks like we’re nibbling around the edges – vouchers, charter schools, home schooling, magnet schools, etc.
We need innovation and new energy if we’re going to level the playing field and eliminate the advantages of birth, wealth, and privilege. We won’t be taking anything away from anyone; we’ll be providing a solid 21st Century education to everyone, and everyone top to bottom will benefit. We’ve done it before and we can do it again if we build state of the art schools and fill them with well paid professional teachers whose mission is to educate ALL young Americans to become global citizens and leaders. If we do it right, we won’t need to talk about American “exceptionalism.” We will be living it.