If you were told that there is an easy solution to moving the U.S. back to the top of the global economic ladder – growing our economy, tripling our GDP, and raising everyone's standard of living at the same time – wouldn't that be a proposal worth listening to? So why is it that we are so reluctant to make bold changes to our educational system – changes that could help leapfrog us back into global prominence? A recent report by Hanushek, Peterson and Woessmann for Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next, along with an interview between Hanushek and Peterson clarifies what the effects of making our educational system more competitive with others around the world would be and provides some speculation as to why we haven't addressed the problems we face.
If We Could Be Like Germany
The portion of the interview that stands out is Hanushek's response to Peterson's request to quantify just what it would mean for the economy if our students could perform as well as German students on broad educational measures. Here's what he said:
"If we could be as good as the Germans we would grow significantly faster over the next several decades. The value in terms of today's dollars would be about three times the current gross domestic product. "
This is one of the few times in which a concrete value has been placed on our failing education system. If we could make the system better, so that our students were more skilled in science, math, innovation, and other STEM areas, the long term benefits for the economy would be immense. Probably large enough to move the U.S. back to the top of the global economy.
Why Don't We Change?
It has been clear since the race to space and the Cold War that having a well educated population is essential to maintaining our place as a world leader. So why have we slid so far down since the 1960s? Hanushek believes that our political leaders have not advocated for drastic change because they and many within education are happy with the status quo. He goes on to elaborate on this observation by calling the problem an "intergenerational issue." Essentially, because those who are currently in charge of the system or those who would drive educational change (the older generations) will not directly benefit from the economic investment needed to make our educational system a world leader, they do not actively seek to make it better.
How Do We Do It?
Contrary to the inconclusive findings of Hanuskek, Peterson, and Woessmann's report and the inference that they make from them, educational funding actually is the answer. The authors cite unpredictable results as an indication that increased funding does not improve education. Their observation was that a comparable number of states that increased their educational spending showed either substantial gains as showed small or no gains. Further, some states showed gains despite not increasing educational expenditure.
What the authors did not examine was the effect of educational cuts or the actual scope of the additional spending on learning. Most schools in the U.S. are in a budget crisis due to funding cuts, so any increases in funding are likely to be small at this point. However, the spending that would be required to move the U.S. back into world preeminence in education is an increase in orders of magnitude over our current per pupil rate. In order to become competitive on a global scale the U.S. needs to make education its number one budget priority and manage the expenditure wisely.
In a country with the vast wealth of the U.S., there is no reason that education should not have every drop of funding that is needed to provide an excellent, innovative, individualized, technology-centered education for every student. Certainly, throwing a few pennies at some schools makes little difference. What education needs is an unhindered flood of resources, top-quality teachers, parental support, and societal emphasis on the importance of learning. We have the resources to make our educational system easily the best in the world, but instead our politicians and presidential hopefuls discuss cutting taxes.
There is no realistic scenario in which cutting taxes for anyone makes our education system better for everyone. Vouchers are not a solution either. They might make it better for a few, but would make education worse for the masses. What those who would advocate for such cuts and reforms are failing to realize is that, in the long haul, better education for everyone would benefit businesses bottom line. Or maybe they do realize it, but aren't willing to invest in others when they already have enough.
The truth is that, despite what anyone says, there is really only one way to "fix" education – invest in it. Our students at all levels from pre-k through graduate school, are the most valuable resource that this country has and our indifference to the education of a majority of them does all of us a grave injustice. It will require the efforts of the entire society to make education reach its potential. The good news is that, unlike so many other countries in the world, we have the resources to do it. But do we have the will?