The February 7 Wall Street Journal quoted secretary of education, Arne Duncan, saying, "Educationally, we used to lead the world, and we have sort of lost our way in the last couple of decades. We just have to educate ourselves to a better economy."
Supposedly, Mr. Duncan came to Washington from Chicago. His statement is more indicative of someone who arrived from a cave or another planet.
"Lost our way in the last couple of decades?" In 1983, 26 years ago, then secretary of education, Terrel Bell, put forth "A Nation At Risk." It said we had sort of lost our way in education. Finding "a rising tide of mediocrity" in the U. S., it painted Germany, South Korea and, especially, Japan, as countries that were leaving us in the economic dust.
You remember Japan. "A Nation At Risk" and media stories portrayed Japan as an economic colossus astride the globe. The reason? Its students scored high on tests. High test scores equals terrific economy. But around 1990, Japan's bubble burst and its economy sank into the Pacific, taking the other "Asian Tiger" economies with it.
It has yet to recover. Japan has suffered almost 20 years of either recession or stagnation. Its students still ace tests in international comparisons, but the Japanese now know that high test scores do nothing "to educate ourselves to a better economy."
A few years after "A Nation At Risk" scared people, the United States began the longest sustained economic expansion in its history. And it was real--productivity soared. A 1994 New York Times headline read "The American Economy: Back on Top." Had we "educated ourselves to a better economy?" No. International studies of math and science found American students average to below average depending on the subject and grade. Three months after the Times headline, IBM CEO, Lou Gerstner took to the Times' op-ed page with "Our Schools Are Failing."
In more recent international tests, rather than having "sort of lost our way," American students have improved their standing in mathematics and held their own pretty good standing in science. They have also held their own in international studies of reading where they have always scored very high.
Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, schools have been the scapegoat of choice for any social crisis, real or imagined. Fact: the U. S. had a satellite-capable rocket in the air in 1956 and chose not to put anything into orbit. Political, strategic and diplomatic reasons all played roles in that decision as did the internecine warfare among Army, Navy and Air Force, bickering over who should get to go first. But, after Sputnik went up, Life ran a five-part series, "Crisis in Education." Life was not alone in where it placed the blame.
Similarly, the schools were blamed for the urban riots in the 1960's. At least then, New York Times education reporter, Fred Hechinger, saw the scam: "Almost 10 years ago," Hechinger wrote in 1967, "when the first Soviet sputnik went into orbit, the schools were blamed for America's lag in space. Last week, in the Senate, the schools were blamed for the ghetto riots. In each case, the politicians' motives were suspect. Their reflex reaction, when faced with a national crisis, is to assign guilt to persons with the least power to hit back. The schools, which are nonpolitical but dependent on political purse strings, fill the bill of emergency whipping boy."
If anything, the current catastrophe only emphasizes the weak link between schools and the economy. High scoring nations have suffered at least as much economic damage as the U. S. Above-average Iceland is an economic basket case. France, whose students also score well, is on strike. In spite of its test aces, Japan's Nikkei stock index hit a 26-year low in October 2008.
The most recent global competitiveness reports from the Institute for Management Development and from the World Economic Forum, which just had its annual bash in Davos, Switzerland, ranked the U. S. as the most globally competitive in the world--as they have for years. Whether or not today's cataclysm will affect the next sets of rankings, you can be assured of one thing: the schools will have had nothing to do with it.