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The Sputnik Factor

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The irony of the situation is big enough to trip over--and unless America wakes up soon, we surely will.

On the one hand, the Council on Competitiveness says in its latest report that business, labor, and university leaders agree the crisis in K-12 education is the biggest challenge facing our nation. And, if we don't fix it, we won't be a successful country in the 21st century.

On the other hand, just as we reach this broad consensus on the need for dramatic reform, we learn the people who should be most alarmed, most ready to act--the parents of our children--apparently don't want to hear the message.

Research by the Public Agenda Foundation shows that parents "recoil" and are "repelled" by unflattering comparisons between academic achievement of American children and those in other industrialized countries.

Repel and recoil? Those are pretty extreme reactions.

What is going on here? How can we develop an agenda for broad-based school reform when parents--those most critical to any successful reform effort--don't want to face the fact that we have a problem?

Even those parents who are willing to give a failing grade to the national school system see no problem with their neighborhood schools. Once again this year, the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll shows that parents think that it is other people's schools that have the problems, not their own.

This is particularly discouraging because one place where parents can truly have an impact--their local school--they don't see any problems. What is this myopia about?

Certainly no one welcomes a bad report card, least of all about one's own children. But, when the United States is facing its stiffest international economic competition ever, why should parents be repelled by the news that Johnny isn't as good at math as his counterpart in Sweden, Germany, or Japan?

Why don't they, instead, direct their anger at the special interests and entrenched bureaucracies whose resistance to change is threatening the future of their children and our country?

In 1957, the Soviet launching of the first space satellite, Sputnik, was a wake-up call, generating a tremendous push to strengthen U.S. schools and universities and invest in science and math education. American determination spurred us to stunning achievements only a dozen years later with the landing of the first person on the moon.

With the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing still fresh in our minds, the contrast in our national reaction to international competition then and now is stark.

Surely a country with the will to be the first on the moon can muster the will to be first in education.

The biggest impediment to educational reform today is complacency. Not know-how, not even resources.

The leadership in this country, in the White House, in the Congress, and in communities across the country including the business community, needs to do a much better job of creating a sense of urgency. And we need to summon the will to make the tough changes needed to improve our schools.

This is a national problem that jeopardizes the future of all Americans, from the poorest to the most affluent. While there is certainly a crisis in urban education, our problems are not confined to big-city schools. Some of our best students in the suburbs get failing grades when measured against their international counterparts.

Granted, there are legitimate reasons to avoid making sweeping judgments and condemnations of U.S. schools based solely on comparisons of specific test scores.

Most importantly, our education system offers opportunity to youngsters of more varying abilities than school systems in many other nations.

Universal access to education is one of our country's most noble and civilized tenets. We believe that every child--regardless of physical or other disability--has a right to an education and has something to contribute to our society.

People are right to resist unsophisticated comparisons between our students' test scores and those of nations which "cream" or "track" and, therefore, only test their highest achievers.

Another reasonable cause for reluctance to make international comparisons is that in the United States we value the "well rounded" individual.

We encourage students to develop their individuality in writing, fine arts, athletics, and other forms of personal expression and achievement. This kind of nurturing is uniquely American and has helped to stimulate our creative culture and spirit of entrepreneurship.

Important as these strengths and contributions may be, we cannot allow them to blind us to the glaring deficiencies in basic academic subjects.

Comparisons must be made. We need to know where we stand. And we must be prepared to compete head to head.

Beyond test scores, the most obvious comparison involves readiness to work. Students in other countries graduate ready for the workforce. U.S. employers find far too many of our students are ready only for remedial training.

And it is the school system that is the problem, not our kids. Our children aren't failing us, we're failing them.

At a time when America should have one foot planted in the 21st century, our students remain captives of an educational system stuck in the 19th.

Think about it. If an American were put in a time capsule in 1894 and awakened in 1994, that person would recognize very little in today's world. Buildings are different, food is different, transportation is different, fashions are different, jobs and gender roles are different.

But in this world of high-speed trains, cellular phones, and hand-held computers, our schools, sadly, are almost exactly the same.

Rather than developing students' capacities for independent thought and judgment, our schools treat children's minds as vessels to be filled or as muscles to be exercised. The material covered and the methods used bear little resemblance to anything students will ever do in the work world.

Crucial skills necessary to compete in today's labor market, such as group work, problem-solving, and critical thinking, are rarely taught in most of our schools.

These skills are what outcomes-based education should be about. It should not become an ideological battle between the political right and left; it's about giving students the kind of education they need to succeed in today's world and tommorrow's economy.

In a world in which change is considered inevitable, the lack of change in a century of American schooling is shocking.

We send our children to school 180 days a year, because that's what 19th-century agrarian America needed--children who could go out and help harvest the crops.

Meanwhile, Japan sends its children to high school 240 days a year--giving them the equivalent of a college education by the time they graduate.

More often than not, the only technology in our schools is the telephone in the teachers' lounge, or the public-address system that interrupts study.

It's time to refocus the nation's attention on education. We need a debate that centers not just on inputs, but also on outputs--not just on how many more dollars we'll put into education, but how much more output, performance, we will achieve with our investment.

Rather than doing everything we can to preserve the status quo, we need to start anew. In fact, I believe the crumbling of our current education bureaucracy is as crucial to America's future as the crumbling of the Berlin Wall was to the future of Eastern Europe.

We know what kind of changes are needed. Thanks to the American spirit of ingenuity, there are hundreds of schools around the country striving for excellence, remaking themselves every day, until they get it right for students, parents, and staff.

Unfortunately, they are still in the minority. In spite of the successes in individual schools, our school systems--rules, standard operating procedures, and traditions--have not changed.

We have to move more aggressively and systematically to improve our schools by setting clear goals and measuring progress toward them.

When we set goals, our standards must be the highest, especially in math, laboratory science, and foreign languages.

Then, we must find school leaders and give them the training, preparation, support, and responsibility they need to succeed. They, in turn, must find talented employees, invest in them, and reward them for their performance.

We have to invest in productivity improvements such as restructuring and lengthening the school day and year and investing in early-childhood programs.

And we must create new relationships among schools, parents, and communities and begin to treat students like valued customers.

Technology should be used as a tool to re-engineer our schools, just as it is freeing every type of business to be more productive and innovative.

Computers and other technology can do more than put a wealth of information at the fingertips of students. They can begin transforming the entire learning environment, by giving students the independence and flexibility to learn, conduct research, and solve problems in an interactive way, all the while advancing at their own pace.

Finally, all of us must agree on new standards of accountability that reward success and penalize failure.

Most of these steps are not complicated or even controversial. But they will be difficult to implement, because the special interests not only resist change, they are fighting an all-out battle to kill it.

Overcoming their opposition will require leadership--tough, effective leadership that does not shy from speaking the cold, hard truths, and marshaling the will of people in every community to get the job done.

Parents cannot be content just to ask which local community has the best schools. They must demand that all schools measure up to the best schools in Germany, Scandinavia, or Japan.

The stakes are huge.

The United States today confronts the prospect of not only losing the global race for growth and prosperity, but also of placing the very survival of our democracy in peril. This nation is built on democratic principles that rely for their success on an educated and responsible citizenry.

Exhortations to compete more fiercely on academic grounds in the international arena are not an effort to stir jingoism. I want us to channel the frustration and fear that we feel about other countries' successes into productive applications of our own energies and strengths. The effort has to be concentrated, consistent, and constant.

We can turn the situation around. We have good ideas and the know-how. With the tremendous resources and diversity of our country, we can compete with anyone in the world.

Yes, this is hard. Very hard. But, then so was getting to the moon.

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