I'm reading The World is Flat for a class I'm taking and finding it remarkably doom and gloom. While the book has been updated with a couple of editions, its context largely remains the 2000-2005 timeframe.
Four years, of course, is forever in the digital age, and his impressions of our educational system, particularly related to our math, science, and engineering graduation rates were fairly dismal then. Since 2005, we had another full three years of an administration embroiled in an unpopular war with no attention paid to education and I've watched school districts become increasingly entrenched in teaching overwhelmingly broad sets of standards.
The latter practice means, as so many people have pointed out, that kids in the States rarely have the opportunity to learn to mastery (we tend to teach our kids a whole lot of subjects and move on before they fully grasp the essentials, especially in mathematics). Unfortunately, this is a direct result of the nature of our standardized tests. If kids do poorly on the tests, they either don't graduate or districts are penalized through school choice and other accountability measures. It's incredibly difficult to not "teach to the test."
Now, according to the Shreveport Times (among other sources),
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday he wants to launch a "new era" of science education in the United States, one that encourages students to ask tough, challenging questions and brings more specially trained science and math teachers into the classroom
That's all well and good, but I'm still skeptical that we can engineer the necessary shift in education to become competitive and attract our brightest minds to the sciences (and ensure that they leave public high schools with the necessary math and science fundamentals to be successful in college). The article further noted,
Duncan also cited a $5-billion "race to the top fund" to provide incentives to states already doing innovative, reform-minded work. He said there's been a "dumbing down of standards for political reasons" under the current system of states with their own benchmarks and standards. That system doesn't make much sense, he said, drawing applause, and it isn't doing students any favors in the global economy.
Well duh...But here I go using one of those great bits of jargon: we need a complete paradigm shift in this country and we need it fast. The Earth is Flat didn't leave me a lot of hope that we can make the shift quickly enough after years of neglect when competitors in Asia and Eastern Europe are steam-rollering us, producing sharp, well-educated mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.
Maybe I'm just feeling a bit "glass-half-empty" today after finishing the book, but I sincerely hope that Secretary Duncan and our new administration can deliver PDQ on their promises of educational reform. A lot of people have criticized Obama for doing too much instead of focusing on the economy. However, without a serious focus on education, there is no way we can reach our long-term economic goals, particularly as China, India, Eastern Europe, and other Asian nations become scientific powerhouses.