So who has made America “the largest, most prosperous economy in the world?” Who are these most productive workers? Where did the people who created the successful companies come from? And who are these inventors that received the most patents in the world?I don't believe that we can take historic test performance as an indication that we don't need to worry about how well American students perform in science and math. Part of the reason for this nation's past success is that people in other nations lacked similar opportunities for success. And for part of that success story we can thank a lot of foreign born, often foreign-educated people for working for American companies, or immigrating and starting their own businesses. The modern world gives those people a lot more options.
It has to be the same Americans who ranked bottom on the international tests. Those 12th graders with shameful bad math scores in the 1960s have been the primary work force in the US for the past 40 years. The equally poor performers on international tests in the 70s and 80s have been working for the past 30 years now. And even those poor performers on the 1995 TIMSS have entered the workforce. Apparently they have not driven the US into oblivion and ruined the country’s innovation record.
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What America really needs is to capitalize on its traditional strengths—a broad definition of education, an education that respects individuality, tolerates deviation, celebrates diversity. America also needs to restore faith in its public education, respects teacher autonomy, and trusts local school leaders elected or selected by the people.
In addition, America needs to teach its children that globalization has tied all nations to a complex, interconnected, and interdependent chain of economic, political, and cultural interests. To succeed in the globalized world, our children need to develop a global perspective and the capacity to interact and work with different nations and cultures, the ability to market America innovations globally, and the ability to lead globalization in positive directions. That includes foreign languages and global studies.
I do think it's important to recognize what the U.S. education system can bring to the table, and how much we lose by turning public schools into test prep academies. But that's not to say we should accept mediocrity from potential high performers on the basis that, "It worked before," or that we should ignore the nation's failing schools on the basis that our workforce is "educated enough" to fulfill present STEM needs. It's worth something to have a public that, at large, is mathematically and scientifically literate.
I don't think the present reform efforts do enough at either end. No Child Left Behind is evolving into something that seems a lot like... No Child Left Behind. I don't think that Race to the Top is likely to make teachers any happier or make the profession more satisfying or more likely to attract and retain highly qualified professionals. The nationalization of school policy seems likely to stifle innovation and, sorry to say, most charter schools don't seem inclined to even try to innovate. The emphasis on raising the performance of the bottom of the class tends to shift resources away from the middle and, especially, the top. And the inclination of various prominent reformers to demonize teachers, and to tolerate anti-union fair weather allies who want to break teacher's unions and slash teacher pay and benefits, seems unlikely to improve either the quality of teachers in troubled schools or to encourage good teachers to remain.
One place we're not focusing enough is on colleges - how we might reinvent the college education to make it more cost-effective and to do a better job of preparing an entry level workforce for employers who increasingly want high productivity from day one.