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A plutocratic education

This piece from KQED captured my attention:

a number of authors and high-profile businesspeople and entrepreneurs are debunking the notion that college is the best solution. They’re questioning whether paying tens of thousands of dollars and investing four or five years in an institution should be the default for young people when so many more options exist. With free, high-quality education available to anyone, is college necessary? These folks say no.

Indeed, we have been hearing a lot from the überwealthy lately on what they think of education. Bill Gates thinks the Web will outperform universities (Windows required?); Peter Thiel thinks higher education is in a bubble of false promises; Mark Zuckerberg dabbles by bankrolling Newark’s schools; and, Oprah is waiting for Superman to revolutionize America’s schools.

They might be right. But, that’s not the point.

The problem is that these people have hijacked the entire conversation.

If the ultra wealthy are concerned about America’s competitiveness, the schools aren’t failing. They’re failing the schools. The nation’s ranking on the PISA tables continues to slip, but if we control for poverty, we’re darn near the top.

Maybe the problem doesn’t stem from failing schools and a rotting education system. Maybe the problem is that the number of America’s poor under 18 years of age is rising (21.7% live in poverty as reported by UNICEF in 2007) and wealth among all age groups is being concentrated to a tiny percentage of the population. Given a problem that is rooted in poverty, can we trust the ultra wealthy to “fix” education? …or, can we build a more inclusive conversation and generate more realistic solutions?

On "keeping America competitive"…

Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp. and lead author of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box last Friday:

From the report’s description:

So where does America stand relative to its position of five years ago when the Gathering Storm book was prepared? The unanimous view of the authors is that our nation’s outlook has worsened. The present volume, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited, explores the tipping point America now faces. Addressing America’s competitiveness challenge will require many years if not decades; however, the requisite federal funding of much of that effort is about to terminate.

Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited provides a snapshot of the work of the government and the private sector in the past five years, analyzing how the original recommendations have or have not been acted upon, what consequences this may have on future competitiveness, and priorities going forward. In addition, readers will find a series of thought- and discussion-provoking factoids–many of them alarming–about the state of science and innovation in America.

Obama: Education is a national security issue

In this video from The UpTake forwarded to Education Futures from Bring Me the News, President Obama speaks on the relationship between education and national competitiveness (you can skip the introductions and jump to his talk which begins around 6:20 into the video):

President Obama: “So make no mistake: Our future is on the line. The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow. To continue to cede our leadership in education is to cede our position in the world. That’s not acceptable to me and I know it’s not acceptable to any of you. And that’s why my administration has set a clear goal: to move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade.”

Okay, so science and math education are important, but isn’t building a creative and innovative workforce important, too? Can we create a “race to the top” for creating meaningful innovations in education?

Friedman: U.S. education system endangering global competitiveness

New York times columnist Tom Friedman speaks out:

A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn’t there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.

That is the key to understanding our full education challenge today. Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

Citing Dan Pink, Friedman continues to conclude that, to be competitive in a global marketplace, the U.S. needs to infuse its schools with “entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.” As we stated before, there are many obstacles for schools that wish to produce creatives. Most importantly:

  1. No Child Left Behind. NCLB is producing exactly the wrong products for the 21st Century, but is right on for the 1850’s through 1950. NCLB’s fractured memorization model opposes the creative, synthetic thinking required for new work and effective citizenship.
  2. Schools are merging with prisons. As soon as students enter schools, they lose many of their fundamental rights, including the right to free speech. Students who do not wish to conform to prison-like, automaton production must develop individual creativity to survive… often at a price.
  3. Inadequate teacher preparation, recruitment and retention. The U.S. public schools have always been lemmings, but are now failing to produce teachers who are savvy to the contemporary trends their students must learn and respond to in times of accelerating change. The other half of the picture is teacher-modeled creativity, something the public schools have never seriously attempted.
  4. Insufficient adoption of technology. The squeeze is on from both ends: Student-purchased technology is usually derided, suppressed, and sometimes confiscated. These tools are part of the technology spectrum kids know they will have to master. On the other end, technology in the schools is dated, the Internet is firewalled, and there isn’t enough equipment to go around.
  5. Focusing on information retention as opposed to new knowledge production. Disk-drive learning is for computers. Knowledge production and innovation are for humans. The first requires fast recall and low error rates from dumb systems; the second, driven by intelligent people, builds the economy and keeps America competitive.
  6. Innovation is eschewed. Most U.S. teachers think innovation is something that requires them to suffer the discomforts and pains of adaptation. They don’t accept change as a necessary function of expanding national competitiveness. Many U.S. teachers might be more comfortable in industrial world economies and societies represented by China and South Korea, or 1950’s America.
  7. Continuous reorganization of school leadership and priorities, particularly in urban schools. Serious questions can be raised whether schools are the organizations required to cope with semi-permanent underclasses, violent youth, incompetent, irresponsible parenting and negative adult role models. What institutional substitutions would you make for the schools?
  8. National education priorities are built on an idealized past, not on emergent and designed futures. Blends of applied imagination, creativity, and innovation are required to visualize preferred futures, to render them proximal and grounded, and to forge them into empirical realities. On the other hand, it is quite possible that Secretary Spellings and other highly placed education “leaders” have never had an original thought in their entire lives.
  9. Social class and cultural problems in schools and communities suggest that the schools live in a Norman Rockwell past. Bright kids capable of novel thought and new culture creation have never fit into the industrially modeled American schools, and lower-middle class teachers have little respect for working- and poverty-class art, music, and culture. It appears that the schools are populated by timid, unimaginative, lower-middle class professional placeholders who crave convention (spelling bees, car washes, exceptional sports performances) over invention.
  10. Failing to invest resources in education, both financially and socially. Education is formal, informal, and non-formal in structure and function. It is possible that formal education will be recognized as the least powerful of this trio, in part because it is so dated, and in part because it occurs in such a small percentage of life compared with the other two types. Perhaps new funding algorithms and decisions must follow this ratio.

Where do we begin?

The dumbest generation?

The Boston Globe assembled a list of “eight reasons why this is the dumbest generation.” They write:

Author Mark Bauerlein aims to provoke in his new book, “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” (Tarcher/Penguin). Do you agree? Take a look at eight reasons the Emory University English professor gives to ”not trust anyone under 30” — see which you think is the best.

The root of the problem seems to be embedded in our culture. Given the long tradition of anti-intellectualism in the United States, I somehow doubt that digital technology is responsible for stupefying Americans, as Bauerlein suggests. Digital technologies simply make it easier for us to learn about how much more intelligent many other people might be, and how Americans are losing their knowledge-based competitive advantage. The key is in how we use these technologies. If we use them to continue our tradition of anti-intellectualism, then it only seems reasonable that we should expect the production of mediocrity to expand.

This week, Education Futures will focus on America’s unstable orbit around mediocrity. Next week, we will focus on what some people are doing about it.

Reversing America's hidden brain drain

A few days ago, Minnesota Public Radio‘s Gary Eichten shared a clip of Duke’s Vivek Wadhwa, speaking about his research on the effects of globalization in the United States:

After researching the impact of globalization on U.S. competitiveness in the tech industry, Vivek Wadhwa was surprised to see his findings contradict commonly-held ideas. He recently discussed his research at the City Club of Cleveland and the policies he says are taking the U.S. in the wrong direction.

He states that we need not worry about a shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S., despite alarms sounding off to the contrary by public policy leaders. If we provide incentives for U.S.-educated foreign nationals to remain in the country rather than requiring them to leave after they complete university studies, we can build and maintain the human capital required to remain competitive in the 21st century. For more, listen to his talk at the MPR website

(Thanks to Carole Gupton for forwarding this item.)