America’s Educational Mediocrity

After watching the film Waiting for Superman the must-see documentary that takes on the failing state of U.S. education the word entrenchment came to mind. There are those deeply entrenched in maintaining the status quo in our public schools.

The word entrenchment evokes images of World War I and its gruesome “trench warfare,” which is mostly about attrition a slow numbers game depending on superior resources to wear down the opponent.

So, how does this numbers game apply to the decline in overall U.S. education?

As economic resources have withered, political resources are high as special interests ante up millions to protect their trenches.

Numbers also are used to make comparisons. The 2011 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, comparing knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries, ranked the U.S. 14th for reading skills, 17th in science and 25th in math out of 34 countries. Canadian students are up to a school year ahead of U.S. students in math, reading and science.

We’re third from the bottom, only above Mexico and Turkey, in percentages of 15-year-olds enrolled in school, and we are 8 percent lower than major Chinese cities in meeting reading proficiency standards.

Most teachers despise teaching to tests, the results of which produce such statistics. It has caused teacher and administrator cheating (Atlanta public schools made the most recent headlines) and deletion of “value added” classes and curricula that help keep students motivated. Realistically though, nowadays countries compete for jobs, company headquarters and, yes, the best educated people a pressing economic issue.

Waiting for Superman exposes waste, failing teachers, unfairness within systems, intransigence of teacher unions, our now internationally proven educational mediocrity, and the tragedy of parents and children locked out of opportunity. Their personal accounts tell the tawdry tale.

In one trench are hardcore reformers such as Michelle Rhee, former superintendent of the D.C. school system featured in the film, who was ousted when the city’s mayor who hired her lost his bid for re-election. In the other trench are those fighting for the status quo: unions, the politicians in their pocket, and an apathetic public, including many parents, who say to teachers when their children fail, that’s your problem.

Which trench has the bigger numbers, more resources, more clout?

And where does Hawaii stand? Despite some bright spots among schools, overall we continue to rank below the national average in reading and math (2009). (Maybe somewhere equal to Turkey?)

National and local politicians usually call for “investment” in education, code for throw money at it. Gov.

Abercrombie, now driving a hard bargain with the HSU, his core constituency, would likely have done so if only we had money.

But is education success about funding? All things considered, example: Idaho, population 1.56 million, spends 1.9 billion on education. Hawaii, population 1.36 million, spends 2.25 billion with Hawaii receiving about 30 percent more in federal funding. Idaho ranks higher by 20 percent in reading and 30 percent in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAPE).

Teachers (really in the trenches) argue effectively that the NAPE, a result of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s No Child Left Behind Act signed by George Bush, isn’t realistic. Yet, despite its many flaws, the initiative at least tried to measure our education landscape.

The education issue is complex with entrenchments everywhere, so overcoming the status quo will require parental involvement, public outcry and a culture that truly values education. (Teachers, for the most part, are working as hard as they can).

It is possible.

In sub-Saharan Africa, every child and parent will tell you what they value more than anything in life: “I want to go to school.” And, “Will you help my child go to school?”

In the real trenches, it’s do or die.