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Educational Success: America's New Industrial Policy

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The United States has typically avoided the government-sponsored industrial policy of our economic competitors. Americans believe that government should ensure a level playing field that supports fair, market-based competition and not pick "winners and losers." When the Japanese government launched an initiative to back HDTV -- high definition television -- there was a brief flurry of debate here as to whether we should imitate the Japanese. Fortunately, we didn't.

We do, however, have a history of government investments that in the long run enhanced our human capital and infrastructure: the GI Bill after World War II, the Marshall Plan, the national highway system, the space program, and DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that helped create the Internet and the worldwide Web.

For the last 45 years, we have also made major social investments -- in efforts that we now know have fallen far short of expectations: the "War on Poverty" and our K-12 education system. These expenditures are related to each other on the premise that the best way to lift people out of poverty is by providing them access to a quality education. I still believe that the premise is true -- and worth pursuing -- but we need to ask why so much money has been spent with so few results.

Recent stories suggest that poverty in America is just as bad today, if not worse, than when President Johnson launched the War on Poverty. Last year, 45 million Americans lived in poverty; 2009 saw the largest single increase in our poverty rate since we began keeping figures in 1959; and we have the third worst poverty rate among developed nations. If this is a war, then we lost it years ago; we need new leaders, new troops and new strategies.

When it comes to the quality of our K-12 education system, the results are risible. In 1983, the Education Department released its famous "A Nation At Risk Report" warning against "a rising tide of mediocrity" in our schools. We have now had nearly 30 years of follow-on rhetoric, much of it aspirational, goal-driven, and feel good -- but with few solid results.

So where are we now? Consider these stark facts from two recent reports:

In late December 2010, the Education Trust reported that nearly 25 percent of high school graduates taking the U.S. Army entrance exam cannot answer basic questions in math, science, and reading. Some of the questions were pretty basic: "If 2 plus x equals 4, what is the value of x?"

How can any young person graduate today from an American high school without basic reading, math, and science skills? We already know that many of our colleges and universities spend resources on remediating their freshmen students who lack the skills they need to begin and succeed in college.

And then there's the report, also issued last month, by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which showed that the United States ranked 17th in reading, 31st in math, and 23rd in science among 15-year-olds tested in 65 nations and economies that participated in the OECD's 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). By contrast, finishing at or near the top were Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Japan.

These two reports are more than a wake-up call: they are a five-alarm fire. That "rising tide of mediocrity" in 1983 has become today's tsunami.

What have we done since 1983? We've talked a lot. And written reports. And held conferences, forums, and summits. We've tried countless approaches that tinker around the edges: extend the school day, pay teachers more, decentralize power at the individual school level, empower principals, expand alternative teacher certification, give parents choices, fund public and private charter schools, abolish teacher tenure, pay states more, and improve state-level testing.

Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton pursued a series of national education goals between 1990 and 2000 that included reducing the dropout rate by 50 percent, having all of our children arrive at school ready to learn, and being first in the world in math and science -- all by the year 2000. These goals were laudable, but the nation never took them seriously. They weren't met. There was feel-good rhetoric, but precious little rigor.

So here are some suggestions for addressing the crisis. My conservative and liberal friends may not like these ideas, but having followed K-12 education reform closely for almost three decades, here's my best shot at what to do:

We need to change our approach from preventing failure to promoting success.The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" to describe what had happened to families mired in poverty, drugs, single-parenthood, and welfare dependency. We are a good and generous nation, and we should continue our efforts to alleviate poverty -- while also taking a hard-nosed look at stopping what has not worked. As Albert Einstein once said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

At the same time, we need to "define success up." Our new industrial and competitiveness policy as a nation should be focused relentlessly on those talented young children and adolescents who show educational promise. We should double, perhaps triple, federal, state, and private sector resources that support gifted-and-talented programs in our schools. We should nurture this talent the same way some institutions nurture athletic talent. This approach is not elitism; it is smart commonsense. It says that we will make dramatic human capital investments in those young people who show significant promise of educational excellence and achievement. We know that such young people exist in affluent neighborhoods as well as inner cities.

While I firmly believe that all children can learn, not all children are ready to learn at the same time. If some of our classrooms have disruptive students, these students should attend other classes until they become serious about learning.They should not impede our best and brightest. Each classroom in America should be a place dedicated to learning; if young people have other interests, then they should be elsewhere until they are serious about learning.

And finally, we should learn from the French, who for decades have had a baccalaureate exam that is a prerequisite for advancing to post-secondary education. In France, the "bac" exam is typically taken by 17- and 18-year-olds, but if a student fails the exam, he or she can take it again -- even later in life. The "bac" serves two purposes: it sets a standard for what French high school graduates know and can do, and it serves as a moment of consequence for French young people: they cannot move forward until they have proved their proficiency.

By contrast, in the United States, we kid ourselves that a high school degree means something, when often it doesn't. We tolerate 12 years of social promotion and then leave the remediation to someone else -- either the post-secondary sector or the workplace. In several states, where testing has been adopted, we find large discrepancies between how the states report their children's performance on "No Child Left Behind" tests and the often much lower performance found by the objective National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And yet some surveys show that our children and their parents continue to believe that we lead the world in educational achievement. As some critics have begun to observe, noting our growing obesity epidemic, we are rapidly becoming a nation that is "fat, dumb, and happy."

There is no reason why the United States cannot have a national (not federal) equivalent of the French "bac" developed within six months by the nation's governors. If such an exam cannot be developed within six months, then perhaps we really have wasted a lot of time over the last 30 years. Algebra in New Hampshire is not different from algebra in California. Reading skills and reading-level assessments should be the same in each state. Grammar doesn't vary across state borders, and gravity tends to work the same way everywhere. The governors are well-positioned to lead a national discussion about what our high school graduates should know and be able to do -- and then devise a test that measures the success of our young people in mastering what they need to know to be successful. The National Governors Association is already doing excellent work in this area -- but it has to move faster.

We really aren't serious as a nation when it comes to education. We talk a good game, but the results are, in all honesty, pathetic given the resources we've squandered. We need a more tough-minded and focused approach that identifies, nurtures, and rewards success. Our education system, to be taken seriously, must be one where there are consequences -- for success and for failure. And we need to approach our education investment as we approach infrastructure or industrial policy. The goal is to foster success in ways that will enhance both our economy and our democracy.

Our competitors understand what's at stake, and they are outperforming us. Many of those Asian nations surveyed in the PISA study have made enormous strides in just a decade or less. They are hungry to compete and to win. It's time for the United States to move beyond rhetoric and embrace rigor.