What does the loss of educational prowess really foretell for the future of America? The statistics on our sinking intellectual ship are not even argued about much anymore; everyone admits they are dismal.
The blame game continues unabated with no shortage of purported causes – teacher unions, funding shortfalls, an excess of overpaid administrators, too little money, lack of parental involvement, overcrowded classrooms lacking discipline, coddled students and failure to focus on the basics, such as literacy, math and science, among others.
Predictably, year after year, we are again told that more money is needed to resolve the other issues. And, equally predictably, it never does.
As diverse and complex as the problems may appear to be on the surface, a single principle applied across the board could turn every single declining element of excellence in American education back from the brink of disaster.
In an article released in his June 3, 2009, “Minority Report,” George Mason University Economics Professor Dr. Walter E. Williams had no problem summing it up. “Any long-term solution to our education problems,” he stated succinctly, “requires the decentralization that can come from competition.”
He illustrated the loss of autonomy and opportunities for responsive and creative problem solving by pointing out the extent to which the decision makers have been separated, one might even say isolated, from those who must live with their decisions: the students.
“In 1930,” Professor Williams stated, “there were 119,000 school districts across the U.S.; today there are less than 15,000.” This centralization of control, he argues, has removed decision making from the local community level and transferred function after function to other more distant government bureaucracies. The vector of control is one of increasing magnitude and the direction ultimately points to Washington, DC.
While it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a public school today that does not have a series of programs and policies emphasizing diversity, the same liberal mind-set which insists that different skin colors, religious preferences and gender identities are a fundamental source of strength, will not acknowledge that a single-minded centralized bureaucracy is a source of deadly weakness.
As Dr. Williams delineates so eloquently, the educational performance of American students, when measured against their peers around the world, is inversely proportional to the number of years they spend in school. As a result, just as our students reach the completion of their education and prepare to transition into a world of increasing competition for employment, the gap between them and their peers among the developed nations of the world is at its widest. And it is not American students at the upper end.
Those who are most eager to embrace globalism over nationalism as a world view seem unconcerned that the “world view” for the remainder of the advanced world, eyeing American job-hopefuls, will be framed in their rear-view mirrors.
We can bemoan the current situation, and continue arguing over how many mommies Heather should have, or we can make sure that Heather has the opportunity to get a great education regardless of family makeup or whatever other demographic details are currently in fashion as marks of distinction.
The notion of American excellence and historic productivity is neither a bit of creative fiction nor a pipe dream. It is the natural outcome, not of outcome-based education, but of a competitive environment which fosters creativity and innovative solutions to whatever problems we may encounter. It has always thrived in a system which rewards hard work. It is the natural outcome of freedom and the opportunities born of it.
It is hard to envision a competent teacher who would oppose merit pay if he or she expected to merit any such salary increase or other reward for excellence. It is hard to envision a single school, district or system which would oppose a voucher system if the administrators had any reason to believe they could deliver an educational experience worthy of attracting students and the education dollars that would follow free choice.
Our students need to not only learn the basics, but excel at them. Whether they go into communication, agriculture, technology, science, business, medical fields, genuine public service or increasingly high-tech manufacturing environments, the competition will be stiff from workers in other rising world economies and we must prepare our young people to meet these challenges head on, with heads up.
A truly competitive educational system will quickly sort the wheat from the chaff and not all will be left standing as is. We cannot leave our students standing where they are either, mired in institutionalized mediocrity and quibbling over fantasies that everyone should be declared a winner just for showing up, while the remainder of the world shows us up and competes their way to the top.
Those who would tell us that social promotion in schools, grade inflation and programs to build an unwarranted sense of self-esteem among the young are designed to benefit the children, are lying through their teeth. These sleight-of-hand schemes are designed only to camouflage the degree to which we have failed our future generations by spending their as yet unearned wealth, leaving them with only debt, while helping us look and feel good about ourselves.
Failing schools say far more about the adults than the children, but it is the children who pay the ultimate price for our failure if we do not demonstrate the courage to do whatever it takes to correct this situation.