The Crisis In Education: Quality and Quantity!

In 1991 the American Management Association (AMA) published a paper which I wrote, called “The Crisis in Education”. Of course, most of us are aware of this crisis today, but in my opinion, little if any progress has been made because the few improvements we have seen have been offset by deterioration elsewhere.

Here is what I said then, more or less:

Drastic overhaul of the US education system is an absolute prerequisite to the future economic well being of all competitive businesses and, in fact, to the future standard of living for each of us and our children. Additionally, it is a prerequisite to the maintenance of the US computer, telecommunications and electronics industries, which within ten or so years may face a  shortfall of critical human-capital resources.

Not too long ago, at a Hudson Institute forum on restructuring American education, I found much of the focus to be on what might be considered micro issues: use of technology, building community involvement, encouraging inter-school cooperation, curriculum reform, future motivation, and so forth. When I discussed this with others, people nodded politely and then continued to belabor the same micro issues. We’ve been talking ad infinitum about these same issues for decades.

There have never been as many people, including business leaders, interested in education reform as there are today. The sheer number of initiatives in the 1980s was staggering: The states have been introducing reforms regularly, but comparisons with most other developed nations are weaker than ever.


brick wall with the word education on itThese days, our average SAT scores still decline every year, and our dropout rates increase, as do corporations’ budgets for remedial training. Our engineering and manufacturing capabilities and possibly our innovation and patent contributions as well, may yet be superseded by foreigners. Also, the qualitity of our leaders and of our work ethic are suffering. Sadly, all these problems can be traced to our national failure in education. All the talk is getting us nowhere and without crisis management, we are headed for trouble.

Can we believe that our Federal government does not  have the wherewithal to officially recognize this crisis? Perhaps our constitution must be amended, because the current “states rights” must have limits in critical areas (after all, the military is reserved for Federal jurisdiction, why not education?).  Certainly the think tanks should be documenting the further inevitable consequences of failed education, to inform our national leaders of the consequences in the hope that they wake up. Or, can anyone come up with a relatively simple solution, and if not, just learn from other countries which score so much higher than the U.S.?

I see people arguing about curriculum content and teaching style; but, students who wish to learn will inevitably be educated across a broad range of content and style. My observation is that across our country, while baby’s inclinations are to learn, at some point their environment leads them towards poor habits; it unfortunately seems that the vast majority would rather do almost anything rather than study. This often speaks to the lack of parent involvement in their offspring’s development. For example, our short school day compared with other countries results in many young kids (when the parents are working) returning from school to empty homes, and pursue many (not all) useless activities, essentially wasting their youth. Ironically, when the mother is home for the sake of being with her children, she may be losing the opportunity to work and help finance the family. Either way, the short school day in the good-ol’ U.S.A. can damage the family.

What chance does the U.S. have versus China and India and others in an open-market world economy? We used to think our vast natural resources combined with our manufacturing skills accounted for a large part of our economic superiority, but that might not last in the face  of  foreign lands which have been investing in human capital while we have been casually undermining our own future. Is our system really designed to allow our leaders to sleep at the switch?

I’ve been addressing quality above, but I’m also concerned about quantity. When I was a kid I too preferred the Dodgers, stickball, comics, and the like, but limits were placed upon me by my parents. They chose parochial school for me, 8:10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., plus of course homework and piano practice. I was a bit jealous of others who just played around but I readily accepted my lot. It was certainly better than my Dad’s youth in Eastern Europe where he attended a one-room school, studied there for nine hours a day, and obtained an education superior to almost anything available to our kids today; when he graduated thirteenth grade he was fluent in three European languages but by the time he immigrated to the United States he knew enough English to study engineering at New York’s City College.

Today, perhaps like my dad, Japanese kids go to school 243 days per year to our 180. The Japanese are in class an estimated six hours per day  to our four, and take home two hours of homework to our average half-hour. Leaving aside the learning ethic that pervades the Japanese education process both at the teacher and parent level, my arithmetic shows that a Japanese kid is studying the 1944 hours per year to our 810, or 2.4 times more!  This does not mean they know 2.4 times more than we Americans, but all else being equal, the output (learning) will bear some relation to the input (hours), quite apart from the qualitative issues!

In summary, there should be more quantitative focus, side by side (of course) with our many qualitative opportunities!

And I believe that those who act as though we do not need or cannot afford to spend more on nation-wide (e.g.federally driven) education reform, are damaging the future of this country.

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