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MoreLIP: We're Number One?

12/11/2010 — George Lipper, Development Capital Networks

We're Number One!!

Really? Perhaps not any more.

As an old radio guy, I'm well aware of that noisy assertion, heard from every radio station in town. We're also wont to hear that declaration at the Olympic Games or about our favorite football teams, more hope and hype than reality.

But when it comes to the education of our children, it unmistakably becomes a claim too far, the solution for which may be as distant as a trip to the stars.

Like many, I'm awed and somewhat alarmed by the unveiling last week of the triennial report of the Programme for International Student Assessment on how our 15-year olds scored on math, science and reading tests, a long, long way from number one.

Actually Shanghai, China topped the list in all three categories; but that a bit misleading since the participants came just from the city. But 64 others were from their whole country. No matter. USA would not have made the top ten either way. We're number 17 in reading skills. And that's as good as it gets. We're 23rd in science and 31st in math.

Now, we're not the first to notice the fault lines in our education system. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, and a vibrant leader of forcing action for improvement, calls it a 'massive wake-up call.' But launching change in our system in more easily said than done.

Ask Michelle Rhee, recently resigned Chancellor of the suffering DC public schools. She closed poorly performing school, fired poorly performing teachers and made enormous progress in three years. But she also ran head-on into critical unions, parents unhappy with inconvenient changes. Mayor, Adrian Fenty, gave her strong backing. But elections rolled around and Fenty, blamed for the changes, became an easy target. He's gone. She's gone. Just three years. We cannot transform an educational system in three years.

We're in a recession. State legislators around the country are trying to balance budgets. Never mind that there's little money to improve, school funds are vulnerable. No one provides a better example than Nevada, which boasts about its low taxes, dramatically reduces education funding, and strikes our to attract more businesses.

To top it off, over the weekend Stanford and the Associated Press unveiled a new study of the public's view on school performance. 35% of the population holds teachers culpable while 68% agree that the fault lies with parents; a little blame game, that we can ill afford.

Over time, and with increasing frequence, Americans have become imbued with a short attention span. We and challenges to be solved by sundown. That won't happen here. And if we fail to pay concentrated attention year after year, we may find ourselves not just 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, but rather, among the also-rans, as competitive countries continue to rapidly move forward.