The state of education in this country is becoming a hot button issue -- and rightfully so. This year's Oscar front-runner for Best Documentary, Waiting For 'Superman', has shown a spotlight on America's latest epidemic, and after researching the issue, I was saddened and surprised by our current status quo.
These problems with our educational system are not just another buzz story or a trending cause, the situation is truly dire.
In our live stream, Duncan tackled questions we took from users and the live audience. We covered a number of topics including the administration's new Race To The Top initiative, standardizing curriculum, education reform, student loans and cyber bullying. You can watch the entire interview in the video below and/or read the transcript here.
As fellow HuffPost contributor, John Legend pointed out in his post, the United States has been in a statistical free-fall compared to the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to our educational system:
The United States has dropped from first to 18th place in high school graduation rates among developed nations. First to 14th in college graduation rates. First to 35th in math. First to 29th in science. First to 32nd in reading. Oh and 30 percent of our kids -- much higher among poor and minority children -- aren't graduating from high school during a time when a college degree is increasingly required to earn a living above the poverty line. And we spend more per student than any of the countries that are beating us.
This slide has far-reaching consequences for our society, including an immediate economic impact.
A recent study by the National Academies revealed that the United States is behind in innovation, a key driver of economic growth. This real issue is directly correlated with the decline in our educational system: "In the face of so many daunting near-term challenges, U.S. government and industry are letting the crucial strategic issues of U.S. competitiveness slip below the surface."
For instance, in 2009, 51 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies, and one-third of U.S. manufacturing companies who responded to a recent survey say they are suffering from some level of skills shortage.
How have we fallen so far behind?
It's a complicated issue that I'm not going to try to take on or answer in this post, but there are some obvious factors that are causing this downward spiral.
Funding is being cut across the board from primary and secondary schools to state colleges and universities, causing tuition there to skyrocket. Funding for California State University system was reduced by nearly $1 billion for the academic years between 2008 and 2010. $1 billion! This has also led to an overall lack of resources for teachers who, in turn, lose motivation and incentive.
In a world where a college degree is becoming the baseline to be an attractive hire to companies, fewer people are being afforded the opportunity to attend higher education institutions. Loans are harder to get and students either decide not to go to college or simply dropout.
In our interview, Secretary Duncan also revealed a new program he's looking to develop with students this year:
One thing that I'm going to do personally, and I'll make a little news with you, I haven't talked about this yet but I had a great student advisory council when I worked in Chicago who came up with phenomenal ideas and actually helped to really drive my agenda. I haven't had that at the national level. One of the things I want to do this school year is set up a school advisory council with students around the country who on a monthly basis... where I virtually meet with them, listen to their thoughts, listen to their concerns and have them help drive my agenda. It was so helpful for me in Chicago, I want to see that in Washington.
The fact is that there's a lot of work to do and progress is not going to happen overnight. Action is key. What we must do right now is continue to raise awareness; to start a pragmatic dialogue around the issue; and put the spotlight on education. It's time to take responsibility for this calamity in American culture. We deserve to be proud and educated; we deserve a better future for ourselves, our children, our communities, and generations to come.
Follow Shira Lazar on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shiralazar