President Obama and the State of Education in the U.S.

There is a certain level of disconnect with reality in the citizenry of the United States. We pat ourselves on the back, proudly boasting that we are “the best country in the world.” And while that may be true to some extent – people have amazing opportunities and freedoms here – an inability to see that it might be possible that we aren’t always the best in everything we do may be holding us back. Nowhere is that more true than the United States’ lagging educational system.
According to a 2006 investigation by the ABC program 20/20, a Gallup Poll survey showed that 76 percent of Americans were completely or somewhat satisfied with their kids’ public school.
Now, here comes the disconnect:
In 2002, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued a report on the state of education in 24 industrialized nations. The United States ranked 18th out of 24 nations. The report was based on results from three surveys that tested 14- and 15-year-old’s literacy and their abilities in essential mathematics and science.
“A child starting school in Canada, Finland, or South Korea has both a higher probability of reaching a given level of educational achievement and a lower probability of falling well below the average,” UNICEF said in a written statement.
Let that sink in for a moment. We’re in the bottom 25th percentile for education.
Obama’s Education Strategy
There are many potential solutions. But, how much attention can they get from our government when they are still preoccupied with making sure that our economy doesn’t implode? Luckily, education was part of President Obama’s stimulus plan. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was enacted to stimulate the economy. But, it also came with large provisions for bettering our educational system.
More than 90 billion dollars was earmarked to do things like expand grants, prevent teacher layoffs, and various other means of improving the educational infrastructure. Investing in education is necessary, but just spending more in and of itself is not a guarantee of success.
According to journalist and libertarian John Stossel, spending on education has increased dramatically over the years, without any improvement in the school system. According to Stossel, spending on education has increased more than 100 percent since 1971.
But, does this really prove that extra spending isn’t needed? Can’t other factors be to blame for weighing down progress (social mores, general economic conditions, lack of school choice), even with an increase in spending?
Stossel and like-minded folks on the right may have a stronger point with promoting competition in schools rather than allowing the public system to simply monopolize education. Monopolies don’t need to compete by definition. So, other than having pride in one’s work, a teacher’s incentive is minimal. Add in the fact that sub-par teachers are sometimes difficult to fire, and you have a very flawed educational system.
President Obama supports tying teachers’ pay to student performance and expanding charter schools, which receive public money, but do not have to adhere to the same rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools. This idea does not sit well with some in teachers unions, long supporters of the Democratic Party. They feel that charters take away much needed tax money from public schools.
But, the teachers unions aren’t the only ones whose interests may be at stake… interest being the operative word.
President Obama is looking to expand current loan programs and lower interest rates. He also wants both the government and private sector to originate new, low-interest student loans. This approach will save an estimated four billion dollars a year in loan costs.
“The losers will be financial institutions like Citigroup and Bank of America who have made big profits over the years from student loans,” says Ken Borokhovich, a professor at Cleveland State University. “They won’t like this very much.”
Just as there is the concept of “peak oil” – a point where the maximum rate of extracting petroleum worldwide is reached – so too is there a peak that can be reached where higher education costs get so high that people will not see the long-term benefit of higher education when loan payments are so high that it is impossible to budget for them. Even people who are not financially savvy can see that there is only so much one can afford in monthly payments for the rest of their lives.
President Obama also supports longer school days and years, stating that those countries that top the education list are in school longer than our students (180 day school years in the U.S. compared to 243 days in Japan). If this is implemented, physical education must become a priority to stave off the obesity epidemic, which would in turn save billions in unnecessary medical costs.
“The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens,” said President Obama in 2009. “We have everything we need to be that nation… and yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us.”
The most important disconnect in our educational system may be happening between students and teachers. Students complain about dull teachers, and pay little attention to the authority figures in school. Teachers often face impossible odds in controlling their students. Both student and teacher share some of the culpability, but if teachers can be rewarded based on results, that may breed competition, and better candidates to take the place of the unsatisfactory incumbents.
Teachers’ Pay: Does the Math Add Up?
In 2008, the median annual wages of kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers ranged from $47,100 to $51,180, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The upper 10 percent earned as high as $80,000 a year.
While it is debatable whether or not teachers are paid enough, one thing is for sure: it pays to get a higher education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 high school graduates made $618 a week. But, those who had undergraduate degrees made an average of $1,012 a week.
This disparity is also seen in the unemployment lines. You are twice as likely to be unemployed if you don’t have a college education. There were 5.7 percent of high school graduates unemployed in 2008. That compares to 2.8 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree.
A Ray of Hope
Not all is gloom and doom. While at first blush, the fact that less than 70 percent of high school students graduate, the numbers have improved in recent years.
According to “Diplomas Count 2009,” the fourth annual report on graduation rates by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center, the national on-time graduation rate was 66.4 percent in 1996. But, by 2006 that number had increased to 69.2 percent. A modest change for sure, but any positive news needs to be embraced.