A Nation Left Behind Or A Nation Placing Itself Last

by Dr. Robert Sprackland


Americans have long taken it for granted that the nation can out produce, out think, and out compete the world market simply because it is America. But consider these historical facts:

•The U.S. only became a world power after the First World War

•The U.S. became a superpower during the Second World War

•The U.S. became the richest nation after WW II, largely because the other plausible competitors for the position—Japan, Germany, and Britain—had been bombed into near oblivion

•With help from the Marshal Plan, the U.S. funded reconstruction of its major competitors. While “made in Japan” was a derogatory comment in the 1950s, it has been a sign of quality since the 1980s

•Many contributors that led the U.S. to global prominence during the post-war years came from the war-ravaged nations: for example, the nuclear and space programs and their spin-off benefits are products of former Italian/German/Nazi scientists (Fermi, Einstein, von Braun)

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that lacks a united and cohesive k-12 education plan, leaving curriculum, certification, and standards decisions in the hands of state or local school boards. American teachers are so overwhelmed with non-teaching responsibilities (from coaching and CPR classes to monitoring signs of possible abuse and handling disinterested parents) that many jokingly tell friends “…oh, and I also teach a little history.”

Throwing money at schools is not a solution. The schools that have elevated Japan and Germany from dust to second and third richest industrialized countries in less than forty years spent far less per pupil than many, if not most, schools in America. Most people who enter the teaching field do so because they actually believe they can make a difference of the sort that the nation is begging for. As novices, teachers are typically assigned the most difficult classes (in terms of size, discipline problems, and expectations for students), face indifferent or hostile parents, work without collegial help, at laughably low pay that often leads them to taking second jobs. At the very least, teachers should be paid at a rate that allows them to live in the community they serve. And yes, the tenure system should be either greatly revised or discarded. Eliminating higher-paid “deadwood” teachers (those who have ceased caring, or teach outdated materials) would free up funds to pay dedicated teachers without the need to pour more money into an expensive system that could work if it were repaired.

Demographics aren’t destiny. One place to make a course correction is to allow education professionals establish school curricula and standards for passing. In a nation without a central education directive, there is no such thing as an “education president.” Step one, then, is to accept that teachers are professional people, not baby-sitters. Community oversight boards do not tell physicians how to diagnose and treat patients, nor do they tell lawyers how to prepare a case for court. Even Austrian Emperor Josef couldn’t tell Mozart that his opera had “too many notes.” It is time that the lay public stop telling professional educators how to teach.

Alternatively, the U.S. can proceed as it is now doing. In a few more years, China, India, and Japan will need a place to outsource work, to a country with poorly-educated and thus low-paid workers. While that might ensure high employment levels for the next generation of Americans, is that really what we want for the future of our children?

Dr. Sprackland has taught at all grade levels, from first grade to university levels. He has taught in both public and private schools, mainly at the high school level. His article on evolution in the schools appeared in the November 2005 issue of the American School Board Journal.

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