Education’s Big Idea: Politics

In terms of education, one of the big themes at the just concluded Aspen/Atlantic Ideas Fest was the idea that American schools must improve a lot to keep the country globally competitive.   As a near term issue I tend to dissent from that viewpoint and see the social problems created by our inequitable education system as a much more immediate problem.   It seems to me that we owe our economic power more to other aspects of American life, namely stable democratic government, fairly liberal trade and immigration policies, generally sensible tax policies, respect for law and property, and a societal tolerance for dynamism and churn than we do to the schools or will for some time.

But, around the world some countries are improving their education systems at the same time they are adopting some or many of these other elements.   So if one believes in a universal desire for freedom and representative forms of government, over time that could well erode the relative uniqueness of the American system and raises the obvious question of how powerful it might be to have both the social/political elements of the United States and a much better education system.    This is something that Michael Barber, Tony Blair’s former policy advisor, recognized before the “flat world” became all the rage because he saw that the U.K., too, faced the same challenge.   Still, that strikes me as a longer term problem than the domestic social costs of having cities across the land where fewer than half of the kids even finish high school.  Besides, it’s those communities where our future STEM leaders are likely to be found anyway.

In any event, in terms of ideas in education what jumps out is the dichotomous relationship between short term and long term ideas.  The ideas that I find really interesting, new ways of engaging kids, delivering content, and even organizing the system are really one or two decade propositions and they are big, interesting ideas.   But the near term ideas are not nearly as amorphous.  Reforming how we train, mentor, and credential teachers, allowing more pluralism within public education through ideas like public school choice and charter schools, better curriculum and assessments, and making school finance work better for poor kids are all ideas that we know how to do now.   They’re not especially big or even all that complicated based on today’s knowledge base.  And they would move the ball forward for students. 

But, they are hugely challenging from a political standpoint because of various interest groups and stakeholder interests.   At one level that’s fine, I’m as big a fan of the First Amendment’s freedoms as anyone.  Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that while the next generation of education ideas remains an intellectual challenge, we have a current generation of pretty good ones that remain mostly a political challenge.

5 thoughts on “Education’s Big Idea: Politics

  1. tft

    (This comment was posted in the “News” story accidentally)

    You “see the social problems created by our inequitable education system as a much more immediate problem” and I am not even sure this is something that can be seen. Your statement seems ill-posed; you assume it is the education system that causes problems like the achievement gap (I assume), but I disagree. The problems we see in school don’t usually start there, they start much younger, before the schools ever have a chance to screw things up.

    We need early childhood education, and a reduction of poverty. Then we can see what our students need above and beyond parents, food, and video games!

  2. IN

    I do not disagree with what has already been stated. But, I believe the biggest obstacle to successful public schools in America , i.e. engaged students, is a pragmatic one: In this country, we are not doing a very good job at selling the importance of being educated. Just look at the names and groups who have reviewed “Eduwonk.” These groups/people have already bought into the importance of education…those who need to hear the rhetoric and read the research and asking the questions are busy maintaining a roof over their heads and putting food on the table. Where are the commercials about public education? It works for ipods, soft drinks, clothes, and certainly for the pharmaceutical industry, just think what it could do for public education.

  3. tft

    Great idea, IN. And we teachers can barely keep a roof over our heads, not to mention keeping up with the demands of NCLB!

  4. Catherine Johnson

    It seems to me that we owe our economic power more to other aspects of American life

    Time to read The Race Between Education and Technology by Goldin & Katz.

    This is precisely what they do not find.

    At the dawn of the twentieth century the United States became the richest nation in the world. Its people had a higher average standard of living than those in Britain, the previous leader. America was poised to ascend further. The gap between it and other front-runners would widen and the standard of living of its residents would continue to grow, even when its doors were open to the world’s poor. American economic supremacy would be maintained to the end of the century, and beyond. In economic terms, the twentieth century fully merits the title “The American Century.”

    The twentieth century could also be titled the “Human Capital Century.” By the end of the twentieth century all nations, even the poorest, provided elementary schooling and beyond to most of their citizens. At the start of the century and even by its midpoint many nations, including relatively rich ones, educated only those who could personally afford to attend school. The United States was different. Its educational system had always been less elite than those of European countries. By 1900, if not before, it had begun to educate its masses at the secondary level not just in primary schools, at which it had remarkable success in the nineteenth century.

    That the twentieth century was both the American Century and the Human Capital Century is no historical accident. Economic growth in the more modern period requires educated workers, managers, entrepreneurs, and citizens. Modern technologies must be invented, innovated, put in place, and maintained. They must have capable workers at the helm. Rapid technological advance, measured in various ways, has characterized the twentieth century. Because the American people were the most educated in the world, they were in the best position to invent, be entrepreneurial, and produce goods and services using advanced technologies.

    The connection between the American Century and the Human Capital Century concerns the role of education in economic growth and individual productivity. A greater level of education results in higher labor productivity. Moreover, a greater level of education in the entire nation tends to foster a higher rate of aggregate growth. The nation that invested the most in education, and did much of that investment during the century in which education would critically matter, was the nation that had the highest level of per capita income.

    We do not mean to imply that economic growth is a simple matter of investing in education. If it were, then any poor nation could invest in education, wait a few years, and reap enormous economic returns. But given a set of important preconditions, such as the type of government and the security of property rights, the notion that the American
    Century and the Human Capital Century occurred together follows directly from the relationships among growth, technology, and education. Invest in education, get higher levels of technology and productivity, and attain a rapid rate of economic growth and a higher standard of living.

  5. Ryan K

    During an recent event the topic of American school’s failure to keep up was brought up. An interesting comment was made about our school system, that it was built upon a tripod. The tripod consisted of school, community and church. We had relationship between the three, a relationship that doesn’t seem to exist today. Communities don’t have the time or money to be involved with the schools. Church, or families, want to blame or drop off their kids. It then leaves schools to pick up the other two legs’ support, and then the new added assessment issues…

    I think this lack of support will continue to hinder the style of education most Americans remember and expect. There is only so much schools can do. If their job was only to “train” the students, it could be done, but without many benifits to our country, communities or the World.

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