03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The War at Home: Let's Fix U.S. Schools Before Exporting Them

In the October 28th, 2009 Opinion column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof advocated that building schools in Afghanistan would be a better use of U.S. resources than spending money on the deployment of more troops. He wrote,

"Dispatching more troops to Afghanistan would be a monumental bet and probably a bad one, most likely a waste of lives and resources that might simply empower the Taliban. In particular, one of the most compelling arguments against more troops rests on this stunning trade-off: For the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, we could build roughly 20 schools there."

Mr. Kristoff's idea is an example of America's current obsession with action before purpose. One of the reasons we are currently in an economic recession is that we waste money: on bad investments; unhealthy products that end up costing us more to clean up the messes they leave than the value of their short-lived joy -- on homes and products we can't afford but buy anyway, thinking they will make us happy -- only to find that the anxiety over the debt we have accumulated in their purchase robs us of the satisfaction we searched in the first place. We waste money on the current American methods of schooling which are ineffective at inspiring lifelong learners who are enriched with the sort of education needed to sustain our democracy. If we can't do it here, what makes anyone think we would be successful promoting schools anywhere else? Wouldn't it be a very poor economic choice for us to try and fix a failing nation with a failing product?

The truth is we build better bombs, train better soldiers and manufacture better guns than we do schools, teachers, or curriculum materials. If you are going to fight a war, then fight or get out. Perhaps that seems like a naive statement. It is-- intentionally. The truth is that there is a war at home and it is raging on U.S. soil. Our schools are in crisis. Mr. Kristoff writes, "Schools are not a quick fix or silver bullet any more than troops are. But we have abundant evidence that they can, over time, transform countries, and in the area near Afghanistan there's a nice natural experiment in the comparative power of educational versus military tools."

What do children need to know to be successful? How do we train teachers for the 21st Century? How can we best organize our school system so they can focus on learning? We have not invested enough money, time, energy and lives in our educational system to have this right. People outside of the world of schools believe the mere idea of school is an answer to problems across the globe. Giving other countries second-rate education because it is better than none at all is naive at best and arrogant at worst. It reminds me of the way schools package up their dinosaur computers and send them off to the less fortunate while they make room for nice, new educational tools.

When people outside of the education world suggest that we educate the rest of the world, the image that comes to my mind is one, popularized during the Vietnam protest era, of a flower stuck in the barrel of a gun. Schools are not flowers. Schools are complex, problematic, dramatic and highly misunderstood institutions. And because we have not paid attention to our schools in the manner needed to sustain their viability, we are in the midst of war in our own country about how to best educate young people. And here is the thing: our students are currently involved in the largest form of mass protest this country has ever seen. They are, for the most part, peacefully dropping out. The dropout crisis can be viewed as democracy in action -- conscientious objection -- "We aren't going to school because it wastes the time we have to explore life." Right or wrong, ill-conceived or not, most students who drop out of high school do so because they think there is something better for them outside of school. School is boring them to death.

So before we go spreading our dollars around to encourage better educational opportunities around the world, we should think about what exactly it is we are supporting. To offer funds for schools in Afghanistan when we don't even know how to get it right at home will be like offering computers that don't work and then when they turn to us for technical support, we will have to say they were broken when we sent them and we don't know how to fix them. Let's bring the money home and fight the war at home.