In January of 1958, the Columbia Broadcasting System took a bold step to use the relatively new technology of television to inform the American people about an issue of real concern. Just a few months earlier, the Russians had beaten us to the punch in space exploration by launching Sputnik, the first manmade satellite to orbit Earth. The U.S. government wasn’t saying much, and the country’s science and engineering community had little capacity to explain things to the general public. So it was left to a group of journalists and former war correspondents at CBS to fill the void. Their program, “Where We Stand,” not only provided the nation with its first class in Space Race 101, but also started a grassroots mobilization that eventually allowed Congress—and later a new president—to set the ambitious goal of reaching the moon that we ultimately achieved.
This month, the Public Broadcasting Service is doing something similar. The documentary “Where We Stand: America’s Schools in the 21st Century,” which will begin airing on PBS stations Sept. 15, takes its title and animating spirit from the CBS broadcast of 50 years ago. Hosted by Judy Woodruff, supported by groups such as the National Governors Association, ED in ’08, and the Council of Chief State School Officers and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the program examines K-12 education in the same way that earlier broadcast looked at Sputnik. It doesn’t point fingers or assign blame, but instead shows viewers where the American education system stands among the world’s most advanced nations. And since our relative position is not encouraging, the program’s creators hope that it too will be a national call to action.
The timing of the documentary is no accident. With the presidential candidates focused primarily on issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan and the 3E’s—economy, environment, and energy—this program will ask an important question: Why is the fourth E—education—not seen as worthy of equal attention? It is the one systemic investment that ultimately fuels our success (or failure) in almost every national endeavor.
The goal isn't to become Finland or South Korea, it's to ensure that our children are able to compete with theirs and with those in other countries—not just to win some modern version of 'College Bowl,' but because the only real capital we have to spend on our country’s future is the collective strength of our young people.
The next president could be called upon to make a decision similar to those in the late 1950s that redrew our educational landscape. But he won’t if American citizens aren’t convinced that education matters as much as these other pressing issues. Because education is not a national responsibility, but one “reserved” to the states and largely funded locally, if anything is going to improve, the public’s concern must be taken to elected officials at all levels, not just those in Washington. But there is no doubt that a national strategy and a national commitment are necessary. And such an effort can only be led by the person in the Oval Office.
Few people in 1961 heard President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade as an indictment of the nation’s scientific community. Fewer still argued that Sputnik didn’t matter and that our status as the greatest nation in the world would last forever. Instead, our leaders rallied the country and designed a comprehensive strategy that included business, industry, government, and every layer of education, right down to the primary grades. The result, of course, was that we made the goal by 1969. But that was the least of it. The investment and effort that went into the space race fueled America’s overall strength and our supremacy as innovators for years to come.
Is it even possible that the current situation with K-12 schooling is comparable to the perceived threat that Sputnik symbolized? Most of us would probably agree that there is little evidence schools are doing any worse than they did 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. They are probably doing better, in fact. But the problem lies—just as it did a half-century ago—not in what we are doing, but in what other countries are doing. Our challenges involve the degree to which those other countries are investing in human capital, the priorities they set, and the results they are getting. The United States once led the world in math, science, and other critical subjects, as well as in the number of students going on to higher education. Today we are well down in the pack.
Such a shift has consequences, but because these are in the future, the beeping from that distant satellite may be below our collective radar. This seems especially true as we express in our elections more worry about today than for the future that is fast upon us.
Let anyone dare to compare our education results with those of Finland, South Korea, or Singapore, for instance, and the excuses rain down. We have a more diverse country! We try to educate all children! They can do that over there because, because, because. The point, though, is not that we should copy those schools or those societies. We can’t and we shouldn’t. Education systems are embedded in and reflective of their cultures. But differences don’t mean we shouldn’t aim for the same results. The goal isn’t to become Finland or South Korea, it’s to ensure that our children are able to compete with theirs and with those in other countries—not just to win some modern version of “College Bowl,” but because the only real capital we have to spend on our country’s future is the collective strength of our young people.
Not long ago, it really didn’t matter if some children in other countries did better than ours. Many of those top achievers not only came here for higher education, but also tended to stay and work for U.S.-based companies, become citizens, and contribute to America’s strength. That situation no longer exists. In today’s “flat world,” the geographical accident of where they are born no longer conveys to the children of the United States the advantage they have had for decades. Other countries have learned from us how important it is to invest in their people. As a Finnish educator explains in the PBS broadcast, Finland has realized that beyond its forests, the only real natural resource it has is its people, and the country is investing heavily in them.
Here’s another example, somewhat hypothetical, but close enough to be taken seriously. If, during the period of the Iraq war, China has spent the same amount of money building new universities as we have poured into Iraq, what is the likely long-term result? The scary part of that scenario is that we won’t even feel the results of those two different “investment strategies” until it’s too late to do anything.
Or, to tap into a recent column by Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times, what return do we expect from our $1 billion “investment” in the distant nation of Georgia, as opposed to what we might get from the same investment in the public schools of our own state of Georgia?
To ignore the pressing needs of our children, and of the men and women who choose to spend their lives in service of their learning, is a mistake that the next president cannot afford to make.
What is really at stake if we fail to return our education system to its earlier position as the envy of the world? Some people—the former Colorado governor and Los Angeles schools superintendent Roy Romer is one—have suggested that the current generation of young people could be the first in our nation’s history to have as adults a lower standard of living than their parents did. Maybe that central tenet of the American Dream no longer matters to us. Maybe it’s a sign that we are moving in the inexorable cycle that many great nations have experienced throughout history. But I doubt the country is any more alert to these possibilities than we were in the days before Russia sent that small sphere into orbit around Earth.
To the casual observer, it is not obvious that schools play a major role in how strong or weak we will be as a country. We give lip service to the cliché that “our children are our future,” but most people do not see a 2nd grader, or even a high school student, as having much to do with determining our future strength. We connect the dots between a star high school quarterback and the future prospects of the National Football League, but few of us really look at Susie’s lack of interest in reading or Jose’s success in math as being either a threat to or the hope for the nation’s future. Yet, that is exactly what they are.
To ignore the pressing needs of our children, and of the men and women who choose to spend their lives in service of their learning, is a mistake that the next president cannot afford to make. But, ultimately, it will be up to the citizens of this country to make sure their candidates for high office tell us where they stand on education.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as Where We Stand