No Parent Left Behind

By Sander A. Flaum

Today’s recession may be obscuring a larger, more systemic problem—a looming crisis that could render the U.S. one of the least competitive countries in the global marketplace for generations to come.

The state of education in this country has fallen so far behind that of other industrialized nations that it now threatens to alter our way of life. The problem is real and frightening. And, if we want to remain a world leader in industry and innovation, it is unacceptable.

According to a report released this year by McKinsey consulting, the American economy has already begun to feel the effects of an undereducated workforce. From 1983 to 1998, a growing international achievement gap between the U.S. and countries like Finland and South Korea created a disparity in productivity that shaved between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion off the U.S.’s 2008 gross domestic product. As that gap widens—and it shows no signs of slowing—we can expect to lose even more wealth, relative to the rest of the world.

Standardized testing shines a harsh light on the root of this problem. The McKinsey report cites the results of worldwide exam called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the practical education and problem-solving skills of 15 year-olds throughout the 30-country Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2006, the U.S. ranked 25th in math and 24th in science.

How did the richest country in the world squander its resources to become a bottom-dweller in education? There are two main causes:

First, we allowed our public education systems to grow fat and ineffective. It’s not that we don’t spend money on education; it’s that we spend it badly. The report states the U.S. spends $165 per point on the PISA math test, more than any other country in the OECD and 60% more than the average member country’s outlay. And you thought Detroit was inefficient! In addition, union regulations and large funding inequalities created a system that populated the nation’s poorest schools with faculties who had no motivation to refine or improve their teaching methods.

Second, over the last ten years, as newspapers have folded and television, texting, and the Internet have become the dominant disseminators of information, kids have lost a great deal of analytical power. In the 1950s, if children wanted to learn about the wider world, their best option was to pick up a newspaper or a magazine—and many did, developing reading comprehension and critical thinking skills crucial to success. Today’s new media can be fantastic learning tools, but problematically, they can support passive and indiscriminate absorption of information (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, et. al.).

A Labor Department study conducted during the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed that the unemployment rate of 28-year-old civilian workers was inversely correlated to their math, science, and paragraph comprehension scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. In other words, students who scored in lower quartiles on this achievement exam were more likely to be unemployed later in life.

Applying those conclusions to a larger pool of students—say, those in OECD member nations—it’s not hard to imagine an entire generation of Americans unemployed in their late 20s. There won’t be enough PlayStation controllers and bags of Cheetos to go around!

So what can we do to improve the situation?

The first step is to accept the limitations of our nation’s school systems. Children have never been raised entirely inside the public schoolhouse, and today they even less likely to get everything they need there. A national policy lifting barriers to charter schools and merit-based pay would go a long way toward fixing that problem. However, that is not a solution that would sit well with the United Federation of Teachers (one of President Obama’s most loyal supporters).

Once again, we must call on a proven and under-used solution to educate and upgrade the citizenry and labor force of our future. We must look to parents and hold them more accountable. Earlier this month, I had breakfast with Jerry Hultin, President of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, and we discussed the state of education in the U.S. He told me that many of the students at his school come from overseas, Asia mostly, and he credited the value placed on education at an early age there.

Hultin said that American parents have to start sparking their children’s interest in current events, English, and writing when they are in the fifth and sixth grades. He underscored that parents should make time daily to go over their children’s homework with them. The key point is to keep young minds actively engaged, be it on schoolwork or a self-made pop quiz on the swine flu.

When I was growing up, my mother had me read The New York Herald Tribune, and by the time I was in junior high, I was going over the lead items each day on my own. I had become addicted to the news. When my own children were young, I introduced them to The New York Times, and they were quickly hooked. Today, my daughter Pamela reads The Times with her children.

Bottom line, home intervention now may be our best hope for preparing tomorrow’s U.S. workforce to once again lead the global marketplace.

Let no parent be left behind!

Author Bio:
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at sflaum@flaumpartners.com.

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