Ladies and Gentlemen, My Fellow Americans,
We’ve been along a perilous path for 30 years now. After the end of the first World War, our Nation entered a new period in history. Historians have dubbed it “The American Century.” Five generations of Americans survived the Great Depression, defeated the forces of fascism in the Second World War, created the most prosperous period ever experienced by any nation at any time in history, and held the forces of communism at bay until the final victory at the end of the 1980’s.
Ever since the Berlin Wall crumbled to dust on a cold night in 1989, a winter’s night warmed by the glow of freedom, our nation has been adrift. The fight against communism which had defined our purpose for 45 years was suddenly over, exposing for all our underlying tensions and divisions. That common foe had allowed us to paper over those divisions with a thin veneer of comity. But just as ripping a scab from an old wound will cause an infection to grow unabated, so too the collapse of the Soviet Union has caused the cultural divisions that have always been unique to us to rise anew.
I say these things not to fill with you a longing for the past or fear of the future. I do not believe the end of the American Century means the end of the American Experiment. I believe we have the ability to bind our differences in a more lasting, permanent way; a way that relies not as much on agreeing to disagree as discovering why our disagreements arose in the first place.
Let me highlight just one such example.
Whether we are a banker or truck driver, farmer or doctor, we all know, we all can sense that the modern marvels of technology are changing the nature of work. Whether your fingers are calloused from years of manual labor or manicured for life in an office, we all can see the ways in which we earn our livings have changed. More than that, we know these changes will not end, no matter what we might wish.
This is not the first time our nation has faced such a dramatic change in the very nature of what it means to work. At the dawn of the Industrial Age, we moved, often in fits and starts, from a society of farmers to one of factory labor. Some of the same challenges we faced then, we face today.
One of those challenges was immigration. The new, industrial America needed labor and we found it overseas. Many of us can trace our origins in the United States to the great wave of immigrants that crashed across our shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As much as it might pain us to remember it, those immigrants – Italian, Irish, Poles, Croats, Hungarians, Germans and so forth – were not readily accepted into their new country. So it is today; we are not always welcoming to those who look to make their lives among us from foreign lands. Yet at the same time, much as we funneled those newcomers through inspection 150 years ago, we should reserve the right to do so today.
Likewise, another lesson we can learn from our forebears is also rooted in the Industrial Age. Prior to the need of an educated workforce to run the great machines that powered industry, most children finished school after 5th or 6th grade. Indeed, most high schools were privately funded and beyond the financial reach of those children’s parents. Yet, by the advent of the 1920’s, publicly funded high schools were the norm. By the 1960’s, the vast majority of American citizens were high school graduates and able to earn a solid living at a multitude of trades.
Now, we are told our children need more than a high school education can provide. We see our children graduating from college and working the sorts of jobs we might have expected to start with as a high school graduate a generation ago. But while we acknowledge with our minds that some post-secondary training is required in the new economy, our actions belie our words. We make entry difficult for all but the most affluent. Once our children are ensconced on a university campus, their heads are filled with values and ideas that most of us can barely identify, much less relate to.
I see some heads nodding out there. We know these are the problems. We may disagree on the solutions, but we can agree that these problems will not solve themselves.
Friends, this is a discussion we’ve needed for some time. As in the Festivus celebration of Seinfeld fame, an airing of grievances is good for the soul – but only if it leads to a reconciliation. After a generation of airing our grievances, we should be ready for that reconciliation. Let us resolve, here and now, to lay aside any embitterment we harbor towards our fellow Americans. It doesn’t matter if your forebears arrived on the Mayflower, a slave trader, a tramp steamer from Italy or in the Mariel boatlift. We are united in this simple fact: that as a reward for their trouble in getting to this country, they were met with hardships, ridicule, scorn, derision, and trouble but they persevered, they overcame, they thrived. And they gave this wonderful nation to us.
We understand that America is the sum of what those who came before created and what we create for ourselves and those who follow. We understand that the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness” are not mere ink on dusty old parchment. They define the American creed.
I am a conservative. Some in the audience call themselves liberals. Others may identify as libertarians or greens or some other political ideology. But regardless of politics, we need to agree on what the real problems facing our nation and our society are before we can debate -vigorously and strongly, as is right – what the solutions should be. I mentioned earlier that we seem to be stuck in a funk, a profound disagreement over what the very nature of our problems are and what type of society we are.
For our sakes, the sakes of our progeny and the good of not only the United States but the world, we must make this our mission. We must seek not only to confront but to learn. We must not only listen but understand. Compassion for your fellow American is not weakness. Compassion also does not mean that you throw them to the merciless care of the government. Yes! I said that we must address this cancer, we must excise it, not only for the good of the Nation but for the world.
For the United States is still the greatest nation our planet has ever known. Despite what may seem our torturous present, I truly believe our best days are ahead of us – but only if all 350 million plus of us are willing to do the things that are difficult. As a Nation, we have overcome far greater challenges throughout our history. Solving seemingly intractable problems is in our DNA. Why should our modern difficulties prove any more strenuous?
We have always been the shining light upon which the world gazes when desiring proof that free people can overcome any test, any difficulty that is thrown their way. From the days when our society amazed a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville until the present day when a Slovakian emigré became our First Lady, we have been both the envy and hope of mankind. Are we so vain, so caught up in our own disagreements as to throw that legacy away? I propose that is not the case. We shall always remain as we have, the guide towards a more prosperous, more peaceful planet.
None of this is to trivialize the import of the disagreements that are currently tearing at the fabric of our society. The reality is that those quarrels are based on competing ideologies. Yet, it is possible to agree on a path forward. Doing so requires every American put aside their preconceived notions. It means actually practicing the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It means putting aside our anger and agreeing to meet once again as Americans first. Not as Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, Black and white and Hispanic and Asian, rich and poor, but as Americans. The divisions we have created amongst ourselves need to be retired now. The tired politics of identity have missed the most important identity of all: that of being an American.
So as I leave you, I want all of you to sit back and contemplate what is important to you. More than that, you need to ask yourself why that is important. And then ask yourself, is that thing more important than your standing in a country that has always been and will always be willing to accept anyone who can shed all other labels save one: American? For if we all make a common goal of simply being Americans, there is nothing we cannot achieve, no task that is insurmountable and no aspiration that cannot be obtained.
Thank you. May God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.
You may recall that earlier this month I did a two-part series on the issue of college costs. Apparently, I’m not the only person who believes the underlying cause for skyrocketing tuition and housing costs is the sheer number of undergraduate students currently enrolled in two- and four-year programs.
I came across this article last night by Richard Vedder, Professor of Economics at Ohio University. Professor Vedder describes in much more detail than I allotted the cause-and-effect of increased enrollment, and also goes into quite a bit of detail about how the federal government’s subsidies only exacerbate the situation, not alleviate it. Given that word broke yesterday that the Senate did what everyone expected and came to an agreement about how to use creative accounting to extend the student loan program at current interest rates, I thought it made sense to revisit the topic. Feel free to hit the link and post your comments.
Yesterday, I dissected the underlying problem with higher education, as it currently exists. A college education costs far more than it is actually worth.
Today’s students pay far too much and receive far too little benefit to justify the expense. What’s more, in most cases they are strapping themselves with insane amounts of debt in the process. It is a debt that hampers their ability to fully function in modern society. The resulting lack of disposable income for the first decade or more after graduation results in a generation that is incapable of financially supporting themselves. If there is an economic downturn (like now), that lack of spending power means that upwards of 40% of the labor force is unable to do those things which define a middle class lifestyle: own a home, own a car, start a family. Instead of college leading to the middle class, college results in poorly educated people (who mistakenly believe they’re highly educated) reliant on the government or their extended families for support.
So, what’s the solution? We constantly hear that without college, young people have no hope of starting in a good career, that their prospects for future advancement are limited and they will be limited in their ability to fully participate in the American Dream. And so we end up focusing on ways to make college more affordable, without actually looking at the reasons for the high costs involved.
As I pointed out, the principle reason for the inflated cost of higher education boils down to the number of people enrolled. There are 3 times as many college students today as there were 30 years ago – are we really surprised that tuition and fees are also three times higher than 30 years ago? The real question is why we are funneling so many people into colleges. If it is to prepare them for post-academic life, then there can be little doubt that we’re failing in a big way.
I’ve always felt the primary purpose of education – whether primary, secondary or post-secondary – should be a dual mission: first, basic facts and skills (the “3 R’s”) and second, developing critical thinking skills. In American education, we’ve focused primary and secondary education on the former while nearly ignoring the latter. This trend is now extending into post-secondary education. A prime example is the dreaded research paper. I shudder at the memory of writing exhaustive, well-researched papers on a weekly basis while in college. The amount of time I spent developing a final paper for each class was measured in weeks, not days. Yet, today’s students often are tasked with only one paper at term’s end and drilled in preparing for weekly quizzes – an approach similar to the high school experience. The original purpose of higher education in the American system, developing one’s mind to sift through tons of data, determine which pieces are relevant and create a cohesive argument from them, is being lost. In other words, we’re graduating millions of kids prepared for an extended stay on “Jeopardy!” but not ready for the types of jobs that traditionally require a college degree.
This is also a result of herding high school students into college. I think the best way to tackle the costs associated with college stem from rethinking the way we handle primary and secondary education. Current elementary and secondary school curricula are leftovers from the days when the United States was principally an agricultural society, and recent reforms have done little to address that fundamental flaw. If anything, the recent and increasing emphasis on standardized testing and evaluation of student and teacher achievement is a step backward and fails to address the real world situations most young people face after graduating from high school. Because our education system now deemphasizes critical thinking skills in favor of rote memorization and socialization, most kids enter into adulthood knowing a set of facts that are essentially meaningless – unless preparing for life as a game show contestant.
The best course of action, I believe, is to reintroduce vocational training during high school and reemphasize critical thinking skills, beginning in primary school.
Vocational education programs, where they do exist, are often maligned, snubbed and underfunded. However, I see nothing wrong with providing basic education in critical skills developing courses (math, the sciences, history, English) while also providing 2-3 hours per day of vocational instruction to those students who prefer that track. This is a similar education structure to the German model, essentially – only instead of four tracks of study, I would streamline it to two and I wouldn’t begin the vocational track until the age of 13 or 14, not 10. Along with making vocational education an acceptable option, though, we need to reconsider the courses available. Traditional “vo-tech” professions such as auto mechanic and machinist should continue to be included, certainly. But many professions that currently require a bachelor’s degree only require it because it signifies the holder has developed basic critical thinking skills, along with the basic technical skills required. Professions like LPN or Network Engineer do not require the job holder to have in-depth conversations on the merits of St. Thomas Aquinas’ views of married clergy; there is no reason that learning how to create such a dissertation should be part of the education process to enter those fields.
As I said, the current emphasis on standardized testing results in less classroom time devoted to developing critical thinking skills. In extreme cases, it is turning our teachers into nothing more than room monitors and test graders. The practice grew from concerns that education standards in the US lagged other first-world nations in education achievement. While the goal was and remains laudable, the prescribed cure is making things worse. As a nation, we’ve fallen further behind in academic achievement. Somebody, somewhere decided that rather than measuring academic achievement in terms of how well students think, measuring how many arcane facts and figures they memorized was important. Don’t get me wrong, a basic knowledge set is important. But without the ability to turn those facts and figures into a thought, they are nothing more than bytes of data. We need to empower teachers to create thinking students and reward those students for developing their thought processes. The notion that those skills can wait until college to fully develop is proving wrong-headed.
Of course, there are challenges associated with this type of program. The biggest is probably changing the mindset we currently have regarding education. That requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders. Teachers unions, who’ve proven resistant to change in the past. School administrators, beholden as they are to current power structures. The federal government, still trying to figure out how “No Child Left Behind” left so many kids behind. Most importantly, it requires not only acceptance but a demand from parents, who likely will be confused by the changes.
The other option is to simply continue on the current course and leave another generation of kids ill-prepared for adulthood, in three phases of their development: their academic achievement, their career preparation and the amount of debt they’re saddled with before they ever earn a dime.
One of the truest things in politics is that facts are easily obscured by perceptions, especially in cases where children are involved. Such is the case with the state of education in this country. There are problems with both the primary and secondary education systems, but the issues get clouded by how the public views both.
I’m not claiming any great insights on this. But I understand parents’ concerns, since I am one. I understand teachers and professors concerns; I have close friends who chose those professions. I understand administrators concerns; a substantial part of my professional life revolves around addressing them. I understand taxpayer concerns; like you a hefty portion of my tax bill goes towards education. I understand student concerns. I’ve been one. I understand employer concerns – I am one.
There are, in my experience, two central reasons that improving education in this country has become nearly impossible. The most crucial is perception. Once you get past teacher’s unions, tenure, and all of those bugaboo topics, the underlying cause for the distrust between the public and the schools is perception. The second is the exponential increase in federal involvement in education over the past 32 years. And we’ll never get around to addressing the second until we address the first.
As mentioned above, I’ve developed personal and professional relationships with educators over the years. The vast majority – regardless of whether they’re involved in primary or secondary education, at public or private institutions – are dedicated. I do not mean they are primarily dedicated to their unions or schools (although many are). No, I mean that well over 95% of the education professionals I know are dedicated to the idea of helping young minds grow, learn and achieve. Most are probably underpaid, most are disrespected and yet they trudge off to their classrooms and lecture halls every day because they believe if they make a difference in one student’s life it was a good day.
As I mentioned, most are disrespected, unappreciated and underpaid. Many parents look at teachers as little more than high-salaried day care workers. Worse, as new stories of public corruption and felony criminal conduct in school administrations, local school boards and public universities take hold, many parents now look at their local educators with a distrusting eye. Every time a story gets published about how American school children lag behind other nations in math or science achievement, the public view bends further to the belief that our children are being taught by people who don’t care – or don’t know their jobs and don’t care.
Of course, teachers unions and school administrators are partly to blame behind the perception. Every time a criminal teacher winds up in a “rubber room” for a decade, it sheds a bad light on the entire profession. Rather than working with the public to identify and quickly remove the 5% that are bad apples, they allow them to fester. While it is understandable that a community that feels under siege is loathe to admit there could be problems within its ranks, the approach they’ve adopted has done little to end the perceived siege.
In the meantime, the common misperceptions continue. The public remains wary of their educators, the educators remain wary of the public. I often wonder why anyone who isn’t misogynistic would enter the profession willingly. As a result, reforms that could work – or at least worthy of a try – or jettisoned before they ever get a chance. Instead, we get the sort of acrimony seen in New York, DC and LA. And of course, New Jersey – where the governor has built national notoriety by bashing the NJEA.
What all of this acrimony and recrimination has concealed is the horrible effects that the federal government in general, and Congress and the Department of Education in particular, have had on the education of American schoolchildren over the past three decades.
In 1979, the Office of Education was a subset of the (now defunct) Department of Housing, Education and Welfare. It had 3,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.2 billion. When the Department of Education began operation in 1980, Congress appropriated $14.2 billion and staffing increased to 17,000. By 2011, DoE funding had increased to $113 billion, outstripping inflation by $74 billion. Most of that growth has come 2002, when the budget was $46 billion – a direct result of the past two administrations pet education programs. I’m talking, of course about No Child Left Behind and The Race to the Top.
Aside from additional layers of bureaucracy, what has all of that growth accomplished? Not much, actually. In 2002, the United States ranked 15th worldwide in reading, with an average score of 504 on the PISA assessment. We ranked 24th in mathematics (score: 483) and 21st in science literacy (score: 487). By 2010, those ranking had dropped to 17th, 31st and 23rd. Scores dropped in reading, to 500, held steady in math but did improve in science – to 502.
What the feds have succeeded in doing is making life harder for America’s educators. New regulations and requirements have taken resources from the classroom and redirected them to administration offices. Often, I work with administrators who spend more time ensuring federal requirements are met than actually looking after students. The other effect, whether intended or not, has been to stifle the individual creativity of educators. The great laboratories that were once America’s classrooms – where teachers were relatively unencumbered in their pursuit of instructing students – now more often resemble the efficiency of Bell Labs. Don’t get me wrong – Bell Labs came up with some great products, and today’s schools still produce some great scholars. But top-down oriented research proved a model that was unsustainable; the same is the inevitable result of top-down oriented education.
But we can’t focus on ridding our local schools of undue federal intervention until we get past the mistrust that now permeates our conversations regarding education. How we get there isn’t as hard as it may sound. It starts with parents actually taking time to talk to educators; it takes community members actually showing up at school board meetings to do more than complain about school taxes or school closures. It takes parents willing to take more than a token interest in their youngsters education. It takes educators not dismissing community concerns out of hand. Parents, educators and administrators shouldn’t allow schools to become political footballs. So long as we treat them as such, we’ll keep falling behind the rest of the world in achievement. That’s something that should scare every single person in the country.
All of the furor over the NJ Department of Education’s faux pas, the one that “lost” $400 million in federal education aid, overlooked an important fact. States that are eagerly lining up for the “Race to the Top” funds are simultaneously throwing away more of their discretion in how to educate their youngest citizens. You may be asking yourself how that could be true; after all, isn’t the “Race to the Top” about improving educational opportunity?
Nominally, the answer to that question is yes. But like most federal diktats, the “Race to the Top” became a maze of byzantine rules and regulations far more than a program funneling money to states with innovative ideas for promoting education. The reason New Jersey was denied acceptance into the program is bizarre, even in bureaucratic terms. The scoring criteria included a minimum per-pupil spending increase. Had state officials used budget data from 2008 and 2009, the increase would have been represented; because they used current budget data, the state’s reduction in per-pupil spending was presented.
Only in the bizarro world of Washington D.C. would the state that ranks third in per-pupil spending wind up penalized for getting its fiscal house in order. Yes, New Jersey cut per-pupil spending this year, but what of it? Integral programs to education are intact, despite the hew and cry raised by the NJEA during the long debate leading to the final budget (unless, that is, you consider ice dancing and lacrosse integral to education).
Bret Schundler wasn’t fired for a clerical error. He was fired for lying to the governor about the clerical error. In that respect, Governor Christie had no choice but to fire Schundler; no leader can have morally challenged people on their executive team. But somebody should award Schundler a “Best Mistake of the Year” award. By losing out on those funds, New Jersey is exempt from federal oversight of any “Race to the Top” program mandates. Is it that important? Yes, if you think that the federal Department of Education has yet to live up to the stated reason for its creation. (The unstated reason, of course, was President Carter’s tit-for-tat with the NEA during the 1976 campaign).
In 31 years of federal mandates, administrated by the ED, American children continue to fall further behind their contemporaries in other nations. “No Child Left Behind” has effectively left an entire generation of children behind, unprepared for entry to either college or the workforce. Recent studies consistently demonstrate that higher percentages of students require remediation upon entry to college today than 30 years ago. The Department of Education is meeting its stated mission of ensuring that all students receive the same level of education. Even if the level is well below what an actual education should be.
Due to a clerical error and Governor Christie’s returning power to local school boards, New Jersey is poised to surge to the top in primary education. Which seems a far better option than a Race to the Top.