I am old enough to remember when America's K-12 public schools were the best in the world. I am a proud graduate of them, and I credit much of my success to what I learned in Detroit Public Schools and at Michigan State University.
When I was in high school, not long after World War II, the United States had the top graduation rate. Since then, we have dropped behind 20 other industrialized nations. In less time than you just spent reading the last few sentences, another American student has dropped out of school. American students today rank 31st in the world in mathematics and 23rd in science. If the academic rankings of our most precious resource—our young people—were the rankings of our Olympic athletes, it would be a source of major national embarrassment.
The most shameful part of the picture—the one that, by my count, is the civil rights issue of our time—is the dramatically lower graduation rates for poor and minority students. These students are far less likely to have access to the best teachers.
By any measure, America's schools are in the grip of a profound crisis.
Frankly, I'm not sure how far I would get if I attended public school today. It's not just that public schools aren't producing the results we want—it's that we're not giving them what they need to help students achieve at high levels. K-12 education in the United States is deeply antiquated. Most schools still have a three-month summer vacation, a practice that dates back to our agrarian past, when most Americans lived on farms and children were required to help tend and harvest crops. Most classrooms are still physically set up the way they were then, with a teacher facing rows of students. Children of many different backgrounds and learning styles are expected to learn the same lesson taught in the same way. School district policies and practices have not kept pace with student and teacher needs.
Although classrooms have stayed largely the same on the inside, the world around them has changed radically. The sheer pace of economic and societal forces as a result of the digital revolution, for example, far exceeds the capacity of our schools, as they are currently structured, to keep up. How absurd that our students tuck their cell phones, BlackBerrys, iPads, and iPods into their backpacks when they enter a classroom and pull out a tattered textbook. Technological advances, such as iPads and iPhones, have personalized every arena of our lives, but very little has been done to harness the same power to personalize learning for students with different needs.
Classrooms in China, India, Japan, and South Korea, meanwhile, have advanced by leaps and bounds. They have elevated the teaching profession, insisted on longer school days and years, promoted education as a key value, created national ministries empowered to set priorities and standards, and built school cultures designed to help teachers uphold these high standards. They do all of this with far less money than the United States spends on education. In the past few decades, American taxpayer spending in real dollars has more than doubled with no associated increase in student achievement. Efforts to spend more money may be well intentioned, but money alone won't fix our schools.
The American middle class, once bolstered by well-paying jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors that didn't require a higher education, now runs on service and technology sector jobs that require a significantly greater level of educational attainment. But too few young people are making it to college. Even when they do, the monumental cost of higher education and their unfortunate lack of sound K-12 preparation make the university track not just difficult, but also, in the eyes of an increasing number, undesirable. Without a sound education, these young people face higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and crime. Lifetime income, taxes, productivity, and health indicators all decline.
These are the kind of problems—lack of opportunity now and cynicism about the future—that contribute toward frustrations behind movements like Occupy Wall Street. They are right. We must do better.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking by Eli Broad. Copyright (c) 2012 by Eli Broad. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.