The Russians, Japanese, Outsourcers Are Coming!

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal ($), former IBM CEO and current Teaching Commission head Lou Gerstner writes about improving the nation’s schools. He’s right about the need, and his commission has produced some important recommendations (pdf) that demand the attention of policymakers.

Yet wouldn’t Gerstner, and many others, have a stronger case if it consisted of less economic scaremongering and more clear-eyed presentation of the facts? Sure, continued economic competitiveness is keenly related to quality of education but that’s a long-term problem and a subtle one. It’s folly to blame the public schools for outsourcing (which turns out to be much ado about almost nothing anyway), just as it was to blame them for the rise of the Japanese (we don’t hear much about that anymore), rising Soviet supremacy (Admiral Rickover, call your office), or other temporal issues.

A more immediate problem, and one that Americans are not yet inured to (because most don’t really know about it), is that we have a school system where, nationwide, half of minority students fail to finish high school and enormous gaps in achievement divide students. The systemic inequities this is creating, in a country where economic self-determination is increasingly predicated on education, are a serious threat to our social fabric. All this, of course, impacts business (and lest we forget it is the private sector that largely creates jobs in this country), but it would be refreshing to hear a CEO lay it out in equity terms rather than sky is falling economic rhetoric. And it just might get some people’s attention, too.

Campaign 2004 Afterthought: Gerstner also chastises the candidates for failing to address education in the campaign, yet he inexplicably fails to note that John Kerry has included many of the Teaching Commission’s recommendations in his campaign agenda.

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