In the 1970s, the United States was the widely acknowledged world leader in workforce quality. We had led the world in the 1800s in providing universal free public elementary school education. We then led the world at the turn of the century in providing free public secondary education to our citizens. And again, after World War II, we led the world in creating a low-cost system of mass higher education for our people. Our reward was the best-educated workforce in the world and the world’s most successful economy. Because the world’s most successful economy could afford the world’s biggest military, we could dominate the world politically, too. The world was our oyster, due in no small measure to our dominant position in education. But we rested on our laurels. Other countries caught up to us on the amount of education we provided to our people. Many surpassed us on that score and then went to work to improve dramatically the quality of the education they offered, while the quality of education we offered did not improve at all, despite massive additional expenditure. The result is documented in detail by the data from PISA and from the OECD’s PIAAC survey of the knowledge and skills of people in the workforces of nations all over the world, which show the United States placing last or among the last in every category measured.
Just as our lead in education accounted for much of our economic success on the way up, it is contributing mightily to the problems we now face as our place in the world’s education league tables continues to fall. Global employers can now source their labor from anywhere in the world. They have no incentive to pay a high price for low-quality labor when they can easily find places in which they can get much higher quality labor for a lower price. For the United States, that is a formula for declining average wages, greater income inequality, growing despair among the increasing numbers who cannot find work, and the social stresses that come with these problems.
In the case of California’s drought, what had to be done was no mystery. Wasted water had to be saved. Dirty water had to be cleaned and reused. Clean water had to be conserved. New sources of water had to be found. The challenge was not in figuring out what had to be done. The challenge was in doing it. Homeowners had to be persuaded to replace their lawns with cacti. Farmers had to install drip lines and, in many cases, little faucets on timers at the location of each plant. Very expensive desalination plants had to be built. Builders of commercial real estate had to install water recovery systems in new buildings that would turn all the water used in the buildings into clean water so it could be used again. These were enormous changes. Many entailed great expense. But when Governor Brown laid out the requirements a little over a year ago, calling for a 25 percent reduction in water use, there was no rebellion, no knock-down-drag-out fight about who would bear the burden. At the end of July, the New York Times reported that water use in California was down by 27 percent, beating the target by two percent.
It is no less clear what has to be done in education. One has only to look at the nations that have outperformed us to see the pattern. We have to change the way we finance our schools and govern them. We have to recruit our teachers from the top half of college-going high school seniors. We have to cut down on the number of teacher education institutions, make them much more selective and provide new teachers with much better education and training. We have to pay our teachers more and offer them much more attractive careers and much more rewarding and supportive workplaces. We need to offer all our students an internationally competitive curriculum and measure their performance with top-notch exams. This is what the top performers have done and it is what we need to do.
But we aren’t doing it. Instead, we make excuses. They only educate an elite, while we educate everyone. They have homogenous populations, while we have to educate for diversity. We give everyone a second chance while they just sort kids out. We have many more poor kids and therefore cannot be expected to match their performance. None of this is true, but saying it makes it easy to avoid painful changes.
And then there are the other sorts of excuses, the ones that I think of as the eternal verities. We have local control and that, of course, will never change, so we can never create an equitable system of school finance, or stop the politics at the school board level that is making it impossible to find high-quality people to serve in leadership positions. Our teacher education institutions have academic freedom, so they can never be required to raise their standards for admission or align their curriculum with the curriculum that is taught in the schools in which their teachers-to-be will serve. And so on. We are told, in other words, that we have to accept conditions that make it impossible to modernize our schools because we cannot change things that other nations changed long ago. Why not? Why can changes no less fundamental be made in the way we use water but not in education?
The answer, it is clear, is that we do not yet feel as threatened by the poor quality of our schools as we are by the threat of dirty water or no water at all coming out of our faucets. Americans continue to believe that their own schools are pretty good even though others may be sub-par. They continue to judge their schools by comparing current school performance to the performance of the schools they went to when they were kids, rather than by the very different standards now required in a greatly changed global economy. If there is a problem in education, they think, it is in troubled, low-income, heavily minority communities, not their own town. Few Americans understand the linkages between the performance of their schools and the economic situation we face, because those linkages are very complex and the time lag between the performance of their schools and the effects on the national economy are so long.
Politicians don’t often get elected by persuading people they have a problem they did not think they had. They get elected by proposing solutions to problems that constitute a clear and present danger. The threats posed by long-term drought are enormous and easy to grasp. The threats posed by having a workforce that is increasingly unable to compete in global commerce are just as far-reaching, but harder to grasp, less immediate, more complex.
Franklin Roosevelt knew that Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Japan posed an enormous threat to the United States, but faced a country not ready to acknowledge that threat. He nonetheless worked as hard he could to get his country ready to meet the challenge he so clearly saw. Winston Churchill saw and voiced the threat early, but had to wait until the dagger was pointed right at Britain before his country called on him. The vital ingredient that is missing, the one thing that will enable this country to meet the mortal challenge, is political leadership, leadership of a kind and quality that I do not yet see on the horizon. There is not a shred of evidence that charters and vouchers will lead the United States to the top of the world’s league tables in education. Nor is there any evidence that having government pay for college is the silver bullet that will save our education system. No political leader I know of has yet staked his or her future on making the kind of tough changes in education policy that Governor Jerry Brown has made in California’s water policy. Until that happens, we can continue to watch our future and the future of our children and grandchildren ebb away.