A Failed System and a Threat to the Nation

by Dr. John A. Gilligan

If we are to improve American education, the entire community must be involved. In the end, success depends upon local implementation.

Part I: The Threat

A dog starved at his master’s gate, predicts the ruin of the state. —William Blake, 1803

American education is in a crisis. It is failing its students and the parents who entrust them to its institutions. This failure expands the welfare rolls and increases the number of unemployable Americans. In summary, the American educational system has flunked out. It has put our nation and its future security and prosperity in jeopardy.

But don’t expect school boards, educational administrators and teacher unions to fix it. It won’t happen. And it hasn’t happened in the years since A Nation At Risk, the infamous 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, observed this failure and sounded the warning. Meanwhile, matters have worsened and the crisis has deepened.

“Hey, hold on!” you say. “That’s one hell of a blanket statement. There are a lot of good schools and many changes to the better. Write about them.”

But it’s that kind of feel-good talk—going on for three decades— that fosters delusions. Sure, there are exceptions. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

In the big picture, nothing dramatic has changed. America can’t prosper on exceptions. The end result is that less than one third of high school graduates are well-educated, and 50 percent are functionally illiterate, which means they are only qualified, if that, for minimum- wage jobs. This is inevitably leading to two worlds in America: one rich and one poor, one employed and one unemployable, one a first world and one a third world. Imagine life in the land of the free when that happens.

This is not just one man’s opinion. It’s in the findings of a March 2012 report from the Council on Foreign Relations entitled Education Reform and National Security.

When a public institution goes awry or fails to achieve the ends for which it has been created, it becomes not just the right, but the duty of the people to fix it. After all, it was the people who instituted it in the first place. And so it is with American education that serves in loco parentis.

Yes, American schools are failing. But worse, they have been left totally unaccountable by the American citizenry, which is a failure of citizen responsibility. After all, public schools belong to the people, not those employed to run them.

If we want our children to be educated to the full extent of their potential, we the American people must forcefully demand and take corresponding action to make it happen. It’s the only way institutional change happens in America, as will be illustrated below. But first, let’s look at the data. If we are to improve American education, the entire community must be involved. In the end, success depends upon local implementation.

Part II: The Facts

Narcotics cannot still the tooth that nibbles at the soul. —Emily Dickinson, 1862

Our children have grown fatter and dumber since the 1970s. Perhaps the word dumber is offensive to some. But it’s not a question of intelligence. It’s about a gross failure to develop the talents of American youth. Ignorance reigns. So let’s not use words that occlude reality or make us feel comfortable about what is ultimately tragic.

Fatter, dumber and ignorant capture that reality. Ignorance is fast becoming bliss in America, but it’s deadly to mind, body and spirit. America’s greatest natural resource—talent—lies fallow. And that hardly augurs well for the future of the U.S.A.

Everyone knows the numbers; we just don’t want to remember them. From first place in high school and college graduation rates among the most developed countries of the world, we have fallen to 20th and 15th respectively. And there’s no hope for immediate improvement.

The international performance of American 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science ranks 14th, 25th and 17th, respectively. Parenthetically, when students from Shanghai, China, first took the same exam in 2009, they outperformed Americans on all three tests. Even if we took dramatic action today, there is little in the educational pipeline that will change the American talent pool status for years to come.

A recent study by ACT, the not-for-profit testing organization, found that only 22 percent of U.S. high school students met “college-ready” standards in their core subjects. These figures are even lower for African-American and Hispanic students. And for those students actually entering college, only 43 percent met college-ready standards. It’s part of the reason why our college graduation rates have fallen and continue to fall below other nations.

International exams also show that top students in the United States would not be considered top in other parts of the world, especially in mathematics. In a technologically-driven economy based in science, the language is mathematics. Yet 30 countries have a higher percentage of advanced math students than the U.S., and American students would score in about the 50th percentile in math relative to these foreign students.

“Yes, that’s bad,” you say, “but not everyone needs a college degree.” ‘Tis true.

However, 90 percent of the jobs in the fastest-growing occupations require some post-secondary education and training, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But 70 percent of the students entering Illinois Central College from its 37 feeder schools need remedial math, and 60 percent need it in reading. This includes some who graduated as valedictorians or salutatorians. And ICC has one of the nation’s best profiles.

A recent study on military readiness should curb any delusionary optimism of school reform, improvements and innovations. It found that 75 percent of U.S. citizens between the ages of 17 and 24 are not qualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records or have inadequate levels of education.

Inadequate levels of education include the 25 percent who drop out before graduation, which hasn’t budged since the 1970s. It also includes the 30 percent of high school graduates who don’t know enough math, science and English to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

Finally, technology is driving change in every business and industry. America now produces more goods and services than before the Great Recession, but with five million fewer workers. Yet jobs go wanting because those out of work don’t possess the skills for them.

How can America effectively defend itself and prosper without a robust talent force?

Part III: The Culture

A crisis delivers or destroys according to the response it engenders. —Anonymous

This is the first time in American history that the younger generation will be less educated than their elders and have a lower standard of living than their parents. That’s depressing enough. But add to that this fact: Today’s children are likely to be sicker and not live as long as their parents. This signals that something has gone seriously awry in our culture.

As the nation has grown fatter, expanding from 40 percent of the population being overweight in 1970 to 68 percent in 2012, it has simultaneously plummeted into both public and private debt. Will a spoiled nation of bread and circuses emerge from an undisciplined, self-centered, tantrum-throwing, dependent people living beyond their means? Let’s hope not. But a culture of dependency and entitlement pervades the nation’s psyche. It’s the downside of American affluence that makes things and entertainment readily available for every income group with almost no effort.

Children’s wants are readily gratified by indulgent parents. And the needs of the poor are fulfilled by indulgent governments. Nothing is expected in return; nothing is earned. This is a formula for a more passive, dependent and resentful people with little interest in the common good. And it contributes with parental complicity to the physical unfitness, lack of ambition, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and overall lack of mental and physical discipline of American youth. Again, there are lots of exceptions; but exceptions will not make an exceptional nation.

It is in this larger cultural context that school systems must function. And it’s part of the reason why they are failing. So the question is: What’s to be done about it?

Part IV: The Local Solution

As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. —Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862

It’s not that anyone can’t think outside of the box—it’s that we can’t get out of the box. There are plenty of reform ideas floating around. Take the idea of a longer school day and school year. By the time that ever gets implemented, America’s standard of living will have declined further and our welfare rolls expanded, fostering a more hapless and bitter people.

The psychosocial, political and economic gravitational forces of the educational system also prevent change. No matter how well-intended, motivated and devoted teachers and administrators may be, the inertia of the system is like trying to run in wet cement. As Newton taught us long ago, an external force is needed. That external force is the local community. When local communities organize themselves to include all the stakeholders (parents, businesses, teachers, administrators, religious leaders and the general public), change can happen rapidly.

Charter schools are one example. Many charter schools have succeeded in radically upgrading the educational achievements of children from every socio-economic group. Being poor or from a broken home is not an impediment to learning. But it requires doing something different. A local example is the Quest Charter Academy School in Peoria. Quest was initiated by community leaders, driven by the business community and parents seeking a choice and involving numerous individuals from the community and the support of the District 150 school board. What makes it successful?

Three factors stand out: an engaged community that sets high expectations, demands accountability and exercises discipline. This applies to students, teachers, administrators, the school board and parents. At Quest, 75 percent of the parents attend parent-teacher student conferences, and 50 percent receive an annual home visit.

After a mere two years of operation, the results are impressive. Nearly half of the student body, which has the same representation of poor and minority students as the school district, was on the honor roll. On the Illinois Scholastic Achievement Test, 75 percent meet or exceed standards in reading, 81 percent in math, and 86 percent in science. All scores exceeded District 150’s average and one-third of the scores exceeded the state’s average.

Keep in mind that it’s not the structure of charter schools—or any school—that brings success. It’s the people involved: the teachers, administrative and board leadership, the community, the parents and businesses. It takes a village to educate a child.

The message is clear and simple: The present institutional and cultural gravitational forces make it impossible for one person or group to affect more than marginal change. Top-down educational reform movements, from Reagan to Obama, inevitably fail. So if we are to improve American education, the entire community must be involved. In the end, success depends upon local implementation.

Few will deny that the nation is in dire economic, political, cultural and educational straits. But America has seen far worse times. Yet, no effective action was ever taken until the people realized, in the words of Lincoln, that: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion… As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” iBi

Dr. John F. Gilligan, clinical psychologist, is president emeritus of Fayette Companies and co-chair of Talent Force 21 of the Workforce Development Board.

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