THE BLOG
12/23/2010 06:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Educational System is Doing Alright!

Many, if not most, of you are not satisfied with our kindergarten to 12th grade school system and will choose to disagree. Great! I'm open to comments below.

I warn you, though, that I have been in education virtually all my life, and chapter three (serialized in Planet Earth and Humanity) of Simple Solutions for Humanity focuses on this subject. When I began first writing that chapter, I was like you -- we are not paying teachers enough, we should apply more funds toward education, etc. However, when completed, my views had almost completely changed.

Yes, American students do very poorly in standardized tests compared with most developed nations. In math, we rank as poorly as 28th place in the eighth grade, with Singapore generally at the top. In science, we are third, compared to South Korea as the top rated in the fourth grade, but drop to 16th place by the time we graduate from high school. In a more recent world survey, the USA dawdled between 17th and and 32nd from reading to math, and Shanghai, China was in first place for all three. While the motivation of being the child of an immigrant could be largely responsible, have you noticed that math and science contests in the U.S. tend to be won by students with Chinese-sounding names?

Why haven't we learned from Nation at Risk, the 1983 report of President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education? Part of the reason has to do with Republican politics. Reagan was not happy that voluntary prayer, tax credits for private school tuition and abolition of the Department of Education were not emphasized.

But you can't only fault Republicans for our predicament. Blame yourself! Yes, you should take the rap, even if you're a Democrat. This all comes down to spending priorities. You can change things by influencing your legislators and educational boards, but so very few do. It is a simple as that.

However, the bottom line is that the above so-called awful condition might not be all that terrible to the future of our nation. If our education has been at risk for more than a generation, why are we unchallenged as the supreme nation? It occurred to me that we are doing something right!

But let me digress with purpose. Over time, I've traveled the world to learn what others are doing about education. Singapore is considered to be a good role model. The leaders determine what is ideal, and as a kind of benevolent dictatorship, they just go ahead and do it. No lobbyists, parents nor unions to fight. As a result, Singapore students excel in math and science. But, aha, even their decision-makers are now concerned about serious flaws in their lack of humanitarian virtues and innovative abilities.

Finland might have the best educational policy of all. They start very young (but at home) and stress "getting along." Their culture has evolved to the stage where only the best become teachers. In the U.S., an argument can be made, with apologies to the 5 percent who are exceptional, that our best do not go into teaching.

But part of our success in teaching is that we actually do think creativity is good and rote memory bad. The outstanding students in the Orient have terrific memories, not necessarily an indicator of productivity and success.

As an engineering professor, I once thought science, technology and math were key to the success of our future. Yes, they're important, but are not enough. If anything, there is too much reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, and not enough, relevance, rigor, respect and relationship-building. For ultimate progress, we need to teach all 7 R's of education.

In my view, not only are we poorly teaching the classical R's, but we are hardly doing much about the more important other R's. I understand this is because educators also need to optimize, and they feel these latter R's should be a family responsibility. So what is the simple solution for education?

Thanks to Bobby Ferrin, don"t worry, be happy! We have too many other problems in our society, so show good intent, but don't lose any sleep over our poor K-12 educational system. That's it? No, there is more.

It turns out that we did something really smart a long time ago. Who and when? I really don't know, and I actually checked when writing my Book 2.

The average person with a college degree earns almost twice as much as one with a high school degree, but maybe it's just as well that half of our youth don't even attempt, for someone has to do the more menial tasks. We can't afford to be like Qatar, where all the dirty work is done by expatriates.

In this society, everyone cannot be a chief. Most of us will need to be followers. Does it help to be able to read and understand to take orders? Yes, of course, so our system is sub-optimal. Maybe our U.S. Army has high standards, but that pathway of joining the military if you can't cut it with a normal job is now not available to 22.6 percent of those who apply (and, 38.3 percent if you're from Hawaii, yikes). The psychologically optimal mindset of the support staff is debatable.

So is the U.S. in trouble? Is the strongest economy ever a generation or two away from mediocrity? Nope. There is one area where we still lead in education: higher education. The total expenditure per student in the U.S. is $18,570, compared to Denmark in second place with $11,600 and Britain in third with $8970.

We have 17 of the 20 best universities in the world. As a nation, we have, apparently, decided to focus on the few who will lead and produce. Even at this stage, there will be more followers than chiefs. But this system is working, and could well be the answer to our success.

Certainly, educate to minimize the development of the criminal element. Of course, provide every opportunity to all children. The 4 R's beyond the classical 3R's are advocated to insure for this more responsible future. If there is a major miracle and some sanity can be found with respect to reducing spending for war, those hundreds of billions of dollars can at least partially be applied to education. We can be better, and I just hope that the cadre of coming graduates will have a higher appreciation beyond profits and power, with an attitude for development in harmony with the natural environment.