The 21st century will arrive in 316 days. While some worry about
Y2K, I’m worried about a cancer that is eating at America’s soul. If we
don’t do something soon to cure her, this wonderful land of opportunity
When I attended public school in Los Angeles, they told me that I was
a world-class education. I was shocked to I learn otherwise when I
worked in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1982. In Denmark, I learned, the
average high school graduate was fluent in Danish, English, Swedish or
Norwegian, and could get by in German or French. In America, the average
high school graduate is not even fluent in English.
Recently, the South Korean government decided that Korea could not
compete in the 21st century unless all of its workers became fluent in
English. Korea now requires all children to start learning English in
the third grade. They must continue to take English classes until they
graduate from high school or college. But that’s not all. In South
Korea, most parents spend hours each night helping their children do
their homework. So guess what is going to happen? As the parents help
their kids, they will learn English also. In America, on the other hand,
we are yammering about “English Only” and dropping foreign-language
classes as we reduce funding for “nonessential” courses.
A few years ago, a politician proposed giving Japanese children one
Saturday off from school each month. This enraged and appalled Japanese
parents. What, some parents asked, would their kids do on Saturday if
they didn’t go to school? Today, when Japanese students graduate from
high school, they have spent the equivalent of two extra years in class
compared to their American counterparts.
Do you want to know what you can learn with two additional years of
education? Let me give you an example. The mathematics exit exam for
Japanese high school students is harder than the math exams many college
professors give American college sophomores.
We Americans like to talk about education, but we don’t put our
our mouths are. That’s right, I said values, not money. Because the
cancer eating away at America is not that we are not spending enough on
education. No, the cancer is that we are not using our money to teach
our kids how to think. In Texas, for example, one high school spends
more money flying in videotapes of its next football opponent than it
spends on advanced placement math.
If we are to heal America, we must also start teaching our kids about
business and capitalism in school. Far too many Americans are business
illiterate. They don’t know how the stock market works or what the term
“time value of money” means.
We must teach our kids what it means to create something that you
own. We must teach them the role that individual initiative plays in the
creation of the products and services that they use. We must teach our
children the value of work. We must help them understand the importance
of saving and investing, but that can’t happen unless we also heal our
dying education system.
When I entered kindergarten forty-five years ago, people looked up to
teachers. Part of the cancer eating away at America’s soul is that we
don’t respect teachers anymore. Teachers, whether they work in
government, church, private or home schools, are the most important
workers in America. Teachers train the next generation and retrain the
current generation. If America is to produce a new generation of
knowledge workers and rescue a current generation of nonworkers, our
teachers must become more valued members of our society.
How do we do this? The first thing we must do is pay teachers so much
our best and brightest will fight to teach in schools. We must pay our
teachers a market wage so that those who love teaching will not have to
choose between teaching and feeding their families. We must pay our
teachers a market wage so that those who have computer programming and
other skills can make as much teaching our kids as they can using their
skills in the private sector.
In Japan, they pay school teachers a 10 percent premium over all
other government workers with the same job classification. That pay
premium says a lot about what the Japanese think about teachers. In
America, some prison guards make more than the people who could teach
kids the values that would keep them out of prisons in the first place.
Before we pay teachers an extra dime, however, we must demand much
better results in exchange for much higher pay. It is time to end the
debate about testing teachers. If it makes sense to test kids to make
sure that they have learned the material, it makes sense to test
teachers to make sure that they are staying current.
I graduated from college in 1969. They had just invented calculators,
had not invented PCs, no one knew what a xerox machine was and the word
fax didn’t exist. Yet those who became teachers in 1969 argue that the
teaching license they received back then is proof that they are
competent to teach now. I don’t think so.
Finally, we must create a new sense of urgency in public education.
important as teachers are, schools exist for the students, not the
Schools exist to teach students how to think and develop values that
will make them better adults, parents, spouses, neighbors, citizens and
workers. If a private firm produced products that didn’t work, that firm
would go out of business.
We must hold our public schools to the same standards that we hold
businesses that generate the taxes that fund the school. If our
government schools can’t produce the graduates that America needs in the
next five years, we must shut them down.