Two Million Minutes: Waiting for "Superman", the next Space Race, or Graduation? Public Education in America

10/01/2010 09:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How do kids in public schools spend their two million minutes from K-12? Are they getting a good education? Is our public school system broken? Worse, was it just not that good in the first place? Some contend it is delivering on the original intention--childcare, rather than education: so parents could go to work and do whatever else they had to do.

A recent "Meet the Press" TV show poll shows 77% of Americans give our public school a grade of 'C' or lower. The top 5% of our kids rank only 23rd amongst 29 countries in achievement. Other polls and trends are equally dismal. There are exceptions and bright spots, but they are few. Michelle Ree, the chancellor of the Washington D.C. appears to be making headway by making the hard choices of closing schools and firing poor performing teachers. The Teach for America Program appears to be a resounding success.

Our country no longer has the economic advantages we had coming out of World War II. We are no longer the manufacturing, servicing, technology and innovation economy of generations ago. In many ways we still believe we can dictate terms to the rest of the world as we did as the economic super power of yester year. Have young people gotten the memo they will not have all the same advantages their parents had in what is certain to be a very different economic reality?

Many Americans believe we have title to free education, medical treatment, social security and a luxury filled lifestyle by birthright. Working hard and smart to ensure the lifestyle we choose to live does not seem all that necessary. Have we gone soft as a nation?

Kids in school today's digital world are constantly bombarded with texts, cellular calls, emails, videos, DVD's, and all of what the Internet has to offer 24/7. They end up spending their two million minutes differently than their parents did from the analog generation. My generation was able to sit down, read a book, do homework, relatively free from distractions. Does the digital age make it easier for kids to get information and learn, or are they more easily distracted? Why is America increasingly falling further behind other countries?

The United States spends $650 billion per year on K-12 education. Are we getting the bang for our billions? What's missing? What are our kids not getting?

After consulting with teachers inside the public school system, it seems there a number of issues holding us back from making progress in better educating children.

First, there are few national standards describing what a child should know and by when. Perhaps having minimum standards is a better way to go than creating high national standards not achievable or recognized by each state. How about a national conversation with academic experts describing what the standards should be and how best to implement them. For it to work, this process would have to be an 'open source' process as opposed to a closed one. We need to close the achievement gap in this country between the 'have and have not's.' If important skill sets can be identified and thereafter improved, the kids in the better school districts will not be the only ones to benefit.

Do we need to set a national goal for education? President Kennedy's space race in the 1960's proved very successful. The goal to be the first country to send a man to the moon proved instrumental in motivating this country to focus on K-12 education on the math and the sciences. The plan was to create the better t educated kids who could contribute to the sciences and specifically the space program.

Teachers tell me kids often receive higher grades than they deserve. Students are being evaluated for attendance, participation, and other behavioral factors that are separate from their content knowledge of the subject matter. It seems many kids find a grade of 'C' and 'B' totally acceptable and are not motivated to achieve higher grades. Our kids are clearly not as motivated as kids from poorer countries who strive to work hard so they can lift themselves, or even their families out of poverty. Our kids aren't worried about living in poverty, they fully expect the American dream will be delivered to them by virtue of being born American.

Most states no longer hold kids back if they are failing grades K-8. Students are still advanced to the next grade level. The child's self-esteem is deemed too important to be put at risk by the requirement to repeat a grade. Do we need consistent standards for graduation to ensure kids learn what is necessary before advancing to the next level?

What about the teacher's union, the NEA (National Education Association)? The union helps teachers when it comes to collective bargaining and protects them when it comes to the prospect of a lawsuit. Does it help or hinder the performance of teachers as a whole? It is very hard to fire poor performing teachers in this country. Poor teachers directly affect the quality of the educational experience. If they cannot be fired for poor performance, what incentive does the lazy teacher have to upgrade his or her skill set? None. Is merit pay for top performing teachers the answer? If so, where do the extra dollars to make the payments come from?

I'm clearly raising more questions than providing answers. I want to salute those friends of mine, including William Walker in Portland, Oregon, who are doing their part to be part of the solution by leaving higher paying jobs in the private sector, getting the education and training necessary to become first rate teachers in public schools.

It's encouraging to find people excited about confronting the inherent problems of the system directly. Walker talks about a potential 16-K system (not the traditional K-12). He advocates for professionals and universities to begin a dialogue about reverse engineering the existing system by figuring out the end point and working backward. This may avoid the abandonment often occurring around middle school with the existing systems that are bottom up.

Walker points to another problem with our current system: the primary focus on college readiness. Since attending college is not the best outcome for all students, what is the alternative? STEM (which focuses on defining skills for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is an emerging concept and one Walker recently successfully wrote a grant to further study. The idea is to allow students to build skills in a myriad of settings that will allow them to be academically successful whilst acknowledging that college is not the singular endpoint. Walker can be reached at:

It is clear we cannot simply accept the status quo and allow our schools and kids to sink in the process.

We need dialogue, debate and decisions before we slide further behind. I'm encouraged to know there are those who are actively working to bring about change. Let's find a way to help them achieve it.