When Government Fails: Grade F for Education

10/11/2010 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The education of America's children comprises one element of the social contract that American governments -- local, state and federal -- have with the American people. When governments fail to perform this duty, they fail to honor their contract. However, the American social contract possesses unique qualities among the various social contracts between governments and their people. The uniqueness derives from both America's governments and America's people possessing mutual obligations and responsibilities. Other nations' social contracts impose obligations and responsibilities solely on governments. As the Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler extrapolated, the American people have equal responsibility for succeeding generations' education and training. Consequently, both our governments and our people have fallen short of meeting the responsibilities of this aspect of the social contract.

In a recent Roundtable Discussion at the Aspen Institute Intel's CEO Paul S. Otellini spoke of what troubles him about the United States today. Otellini listed items that concern several other corporate executives -- bad environments for manufacturers and for R & D, and an ineffective government. Yet, his greatest concerns dealt with American education. Otellini highlighted that:

• If U.S. students would raise their performance in science and math from today's slightly below-average rankings into the top tier, the United States would raise its GDP growth by one-third; and that
• While U.S. technical skills ranked sixth out of the top forty economies, the United States ranked fortieth in building further skills.

Viewing the solution as simply investing more in education throws good money after bad. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) studies have consistently shown that the United States ranks among the top three or four globally in spending per student on primary and secondary school education. The problem lies with the subjects taught in U.S. schools and the teaching of those subjects. My experience as a student at the University of Texas's MBA program provides an example. I attended private primary and prep schools. Both schools had low student-to-teacher ratios; both emphasized science and math. In my first graduate operations-research course, I found several classmates encountering mathematical techniques for the first time. Despite my bitter complaints about these same techniques, I had first encountered basic versions in the eighth grade, and then again in prep school. Most of my friends in the MBA were public-school graduates. As I taught at different universities in the United States and around the world, I found this pattern repeated around the United States, differentiating us from other countries.

What reasons underpin these discrepancies? In U.S. schools, math and science teachers usually have general backgrounds without specific training in either subject. Most U.S. school teachers do not have even undergraduate math or science majors. Alternatively, my math and science teachers had specific training and advanced degrees in these subjects. For example, before retiring from the military, my prep school's chemistry professor taught at the college level at West Point, and served as a junior researcher on the Manhattan Project during World War II. My physics, biology and math teachers had graduate degrees in their respective fields.

The inadequate training of most science and math teachers at primary and secondary schools impacts U.S. industry and employment. U.S. production quality-control engineers have masters' degrees; in Japan, they have high school degrees. Thus, poor instruction at our schools affects hiring practices and jacks up salary levels required to hire quality-control personnel.

Improving our students' performance requires improving their learning environment and their instruction, especially as they progress into higher grades. Disturbingly, a 2009 U.S. Department of Education report showed that U.S. children's performance dramatically worsens as they progress through our educational system vis-à-vis other countries' children. Among OECD countries:

• U.S. fourth graders ranked fourth in both science and math;
• U.S. eighth graders ranked 11th in science and fourth in math; and,
• U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 21st in science and 25th in math.

Our students' performance worsens as their schooling progresses because advanced science and math instruction becomes increasingly inadequate. Students lose interest in these subjects. Successful science and math instruction requires teachers trained in their subjects, who find joy in these subjects and can communicate this joy to their students. Despite political spin from both parties, no government policies so far have successfully handled this transfer.

Dramatic and immediate improvement in our children's performance must occur or the United States will lose its status as a great power. Lesley Chilcott, producer of Waiting for 'Superman', has pointed out that we have a great opportunity if we act quickly. Fifty percent of our teachers become eligible for retirement in the next ten years. We will lose many great and dedicated teachers. But, we could also train a substantial cadre of new teachers in science and math. We could learn about valuing our teachers from countries that outperform us by wide margins in education, including Finland and Canada.

While a fair start, the Obama-Biden education-reform position statement offers nothing to help our manufacturing and industrial base. In this regard, we could learn from Germany's apprenticeship programs to enrich independently our teaching environments with training from labor and industry.

Our governments have a responsibility to educate our children with the skills and knowledge to contribute effectively to society, and to compete successfully against global peers and competitors. We have a responsibility to ensure that our children receive globally competitive education. Our governments' failure to provide quality education and training to our children reflects its breach of contract with the American people. The American peoples' failure to obtain that education and training for our children, from our governments, reflects our breach of contract with our children.

America has given short shrift to its children for too long. Americans who want to get involved should organize locally. Organize for America offers some convenient tools for popular participation on its education site. We could additionally start bi-directional forums for teachers to exploit the knowledge and inherent interest of tech-savvy children. Hence:

  • Local and state governments' track record on education -- Grade F
  • American people's track record on education -- Incomplete, but Failing
  • Ruling on the United States governments' breach of its social contract -- GUILTY
  • Ruling on the American people's breach of its social contract - - GUILTY