No Way For America To Compete Effectively Unless It Improves Its Dismal Public Education System Most children in Philadelphia cannot read, yet their teachers get good marks. How is this possible?

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By Paolo von Schirach

September 25, 2013

WASHINGTON – There is really no dispute about the fact that in this hyper competitive global “knowledge economy” a super educated work force is not just an incredibly valuable asset, it is in fact an absolute precondition for success. In order to produce valuable new knowledge, societies need highly educated people whose combined talents will hopefully produce breakthrough innovation. If a country does not produce and sell valuable innovation, then it will have to be a user that  will have to pay for what has been produced by others. The innovators make money. The innovation users pay the innovators.

Invest in education

Given this unfolding scenario, it should be self-evident that all societies that wish to be competitive will invest vast resources in their public education systems. The better the effort to inform and train young minds, the better the chance that many well educated young people will be among tomorrow’s innovators.

All this is so obvious that it should be beyond debate. Well, in the US the principles are agreed upon, but there is a truly dismal record when it comes to implementation.

Simply stated, pro-education advocacy groups and policy-makers have yet to win decisive battles against the super conservative teachers unions that are de facto the main enemies of improved public education standards.

Bad schools in Philadelphia

Here is just one more depressing statistic extracted from a WSJ editorial. (Failure in Philadelphia, September 25, 2013). Last year only 40% of Philadelphia school children scored proficient or above in standardized readings tests, while 99.5% of teachers are doing a job. Note the contradiction. Less than 50% of the students are doing reasonably well, but their teachers are apparently doing great. 

This is clearly an impossibility. If the teachers were really that good, then the test scores would be much higher. And this data underscores a truly grim reality. In the US, the public education system main priority is not to educate the children. No, the main goal is to safeguard the career, job security, benefits and comfortable retirement needs of at best mediocre teachers.

Entrenched unions

As the teachers unions are quite powerful and capable in some instances of influencing local and state elections, politicians are unwilling to pick fights with them. The end result is the continuing status quo: tenured teachers who do little and students who do poorly. 

Education and income divide getting wider

Even worse, bad public schools tend to reinforce poverty and a growing opportunity and income divide. How so? Well, this is because the children of the well educated rich go to private schools or to the few well funded public schools located in very rich counties that have the means to enforce higher standards. It is plain obvious that well educated kids have a good shot at getting into prestigious universities that in turn will open good career paths.

The poor are trapped

The poor have no choices. They have to accept what is locally available. And the end result is more data like Philadelphia. If you are in school but you are not taught how to read the rest is almost meaningless. And yet it is common practice in US public schools to pass functionally illiterate children on to the next grade. While many will drop out, some of them will eventually graduate. However, in many instances their high school education is so bad that they will have trouble moving on to college or finding a decent job.

So, the children of the rich, with the huge advantage of a good education, have an excellent chance of getting into highly rewarding professions. The children of the poor have no opportunity ladder offered to them. They will stay uneducated and therefore poor.

We should do better

America as a whole will still move on, powered by the lucky ones who went to good schools. But we are becoming a two tier society, mostly because of a flawed public education system that policy-makers are still unable to fix. This is a horrible waste of human potential.

The country that sent a state of the art moving lab to Mars can and should do better.

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