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.