In a Darwinian world, whiners will be losers.
NEWS ITEM: “A new intelligence assessment of global trends projects that China will outstrip the United States as the leading economic power before 2030.”
And another news item: “Students in the U.S. perform better than the global average, but still lag behind many of their peers in Asia and Europe, an international study found. Fourth-graders have improved their scores in reading and math over the past four years. But progress seems to fall off by eighth grade, where math and science scores are stagnant. Kids in countries like Finland and Singapore are outperforming American fourth-graders in science and reading. By eighth grade, American students have fallen behind their Russian, Japanese and Taiwanese counterparts in math, and trail students from Hong Kong, Slovenia and South Korea in science.”
These two subjects are inseparable. The United States has no hope of retaining its economic edge if it can’t prepare future generations to compete and win.
THE FIRST ORDER of business is for Americans to stop acting as if holding education to higher standards is a choice. It’s not. It’s an imperative.
That would move the discussion to the next level: (1) What are the benchmarks and strategies for success? and (2) What are the consequences for failure?
Beloit Memorial High School Principal Tom Johnson’s recent call for higher standards makes clear the necessary strategies for addressing the problems in America’s schoolhouses. Public education must expect more, increase rigor and make no excuses.
There’s no mystery in that. All those connected to the system know what success looks like. They know where to set the bar.
IT’S THE SECOND PART that gets dicey. No one likes the sound of the word “consequences.”
And that, we submit, is the beating heart of America’s slippage in international competitiveness.
The easy reaction is to blame the schools. Lousy and lazy teachers and administrators. If only America had better educators all the kids would be like those in Lake Wobegon: Good looking, above average and we’d beat the socks off those foreigners.
There is some truth there, but only some. As schools became more unionized the typical protections were locked in place. Getting rid of weak performers can be such a headache it has been easier to just shuffle people around from one building to the next. Likewise, incentives for the very best are stifled by compensation plans that flatten earning power. Rewards matter, and should match performance, not just diplomas or years on the job.
Logic suggests, in any organization at a given time, there will be a few outstanding performers, several average performers, and a handful that amount to deadwood. That word again — consequences: For the outstanding, rewards commensurate with performance; for the average, incentives and training to move toward outstanding; and for the deadwood ... a quick exit.
Anything less amounts to not taking seriously the challenge of change.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, the schoolhouse should be the easiest part to fix. Raising standards for all — administration, teachers and students — is do-able. So is initiating some kind of sorting process to help direct the best and brightest toward achieving their full potential, while helping provide guidance and market-driven skills where vocational training may be indicated.
The bigger nut to crack: A society that has become undisciplined and disinterested, but expects rewards regardless of performance. That’s why Americans are more likely to whine about their standing vis-a-vis foreign competitors than they are to demand a rigorous response of themselves.
Resent it all you want, but the world is Darwinian. Whine to your heart’s delight, but a loss is a loss, and being overtaken and surpassed by others will produce harsh and unpleasant results.
Disengaged, indifferent parenting. Emotional outbursts to any accountability. Mindless distractions and obsessions with video games, social media, celebrity culture. Excessive worry over self-esteem. Bending objective standards to fit cultural differences. All these and more developments are indications of a society that doesn’t want to compete or be held individually responsible for results. Schools can’t fix any of that. That kind of change takes place — or not — at home.
WHAT WILL IT TAKE to get America back on top? Keep score. Reward winning. Demand better performance, at every level, when results fall short. Apply accountability in all things.
The formula is obvious. What’s not obvious is whether Americans possess the will to achieve excellence anymore.
One way or another, we will find out.