Education Must Be Leading Priority for Vibrant, Sustainable Future

November 25, 2012 in Education Innovation, Mapping the Open Future, Quipu Economic Forum by Joseph Robertson

National priority: world-leading education

The United States of America has been, since its birth 236 years ago, a world leader in promoting universal public education. It has also been a world leader in promoting universal access to higher education and to advanced degrees. That history has made the US a leader in technological innovation and advanced problem solving for two centuries. That legacy is under threat, and our list of national educational aims demands immediate attention.

In the current budgetary and economic climate, cuts to public education, the rolling back of teachers’ salary opportunities, job security and benefits, and the underfunding of financial aid for higher education, are threatening to stunt the quality of education available to millions of Americans. But education is the key to strong, resilient democracy and the only way to build a secure and prosperous future.


The National Strategic Narrative report, from two top Pentagon analysts working for then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, found that the United States must put top-quality education above all other priorities, privilege the virtues of sustainability in economic and security policy, and leverage mutually beneficial relationships with foreign powers, in order to build a truly vibrant and secure 21st-century democracy, with a global strategy adequate to the challenges we face.

The value of top quality education for the future of any society is almost incalculable: it affects the relative value of all other elements of the economy, and the efficacy of all areas of public policy, governance and democratic process, including security policy and conflict resolution. There is substantial evidence that lack of universalized top-quality education imposes major costs on entire societies.

Those added cost burdens, from economic and policy inefficiency, to counterproductive security actions, degraded infrastructure and sluggish entrepreneurial activity, can degrade the quality of life for most people in a society, degrade the quality of public discourse and public policy action, and undermine national security and economic prosperity, generally.

Lower quality educational resources build into a society patterns of unnecessary waste and degradation. Top quality educational resources build into a society the capacity for vibrant, rapid, innovative adaptation to changes in an evolving landscape. With the 21st century more likely to be defined by an evolving global political and economic landscape, nothing is of more paramount concern than the quality of education available to every last person living within a given geographical area.

Nothing will define a nation’s ability to compete in international markets more directly or comprehensively than the level of educational opportunity enjoyed by its people.

The age of complex informational problem-solving

We are entering an age that is no longer about building industrial capacity or penetrating beyond new frontiers in terms of geographical or spatial exploration. Technology is advanced enough that many new technologies can be mapped out intelligently long before they are within the realm of the practical.

We are entering an age in which the ability of an individual, a company, a region or a nation, to solve problems rapidly, efficiently and with little resulting negative feedback, will be the decisive factor in determining success or failure, prosperity or ruin. Borrowing problem-solving capacity from another society is not like borrowing industrial capacity; there is no way to export the cost while importing the benefit.

If the United States is to prosper in the 21st century as it did during the 20th, if it is to lead on the global stage in a credible way, it has to maintain its ability to be the most credible, open and constructive resource for problem-solving, and that means it must have the best quality human capital, the most talent, the most informed, creative and forward-thinking population.

Pres. Obama instituted one of his boldest and least well-known reforms in 2009, when he replaced the expensive, slow and bank-run system of student financial aid with a more direct system of loans from the government to students, with incentives for repayment, lower interest rates, better access to top-flight institutions, and long-term incentives to make use of one’s talents in ways that benefit the wider economy and the nation.

That student financial aid reform must be a building block, with new initiatives at the state and national levels both to foster not test-score improvements, but genuine improvements in educational quality, critical thinking, creative reasoning and intellectual skills that infuse the landscape of scientific and commercial innovation with real potential for designing and riding the wave of the new economy of this century.

We are falling behind, even in our policy aims

But we are not doing all that we should to promote top-quality, world-leading education. In too man ways, public officials are either looting education budgets to fund unaffordable tax giveaways or imposing counterproductive bureaucratic regimes designed to punish teachers and telegraph student training for test-taking, effectively gutting our educational system’s ability for providing the challenges, the resources and the personal commitment to excellence that we know produce the best outcomes.

As the New York Times reports, a new study from the Center for American Progress and the Center for the Next Generation—’The Competition that Really Matters‘—finds:

  • Half of U.S. children get no early childhood education, and we have no national strategy to increase enrollment.
  • More than a quarter of U.S. children have a chronic health condition, such as obesity or asthma, threatening their capacity to learn.
  • More than 22 percent of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2010, up from about 17 percent in 2007.
  • More than half of U.S. postsecondary students drop out without receiving a degree.

Meanwhile, China is investing heavily in education, planning to build the largest, most holy educated, most skilled workforce in world history. By 2020, China’s current policy trajectory aims to:

  • Enroll 40 million children in preschool, a 50 percent increase from today.
  • Provide 70 percent of children in China with three years of preschool.
  • Graduate 95 percent of Chinese youths through nine years of compulsory education (that’s 165 million students, more than the U.S. labor force).
  • Ensure that no child drops out of school for financial reasons.
  • More than double enrollment in higher education.

Taking it to the local, getting involved

The people of New York City have choices. We are at a moment of reckoning. We can choose to spend money to help transnational corporations pad their quarterly reports or we can choose to fund the world-leading infrastructure for education, innovation, citizenship, transport and public safety we all believe we deserve.

If you want to have a good idea of whether your kids’ school is focused on educating your children for global citizenship and intellectual mastery or simply training them as bureaucracy-reinforcing test-takers, find out how the administrators think about the city’s regime of high-stakes testing.

If your school’s administrators are obsessed with bumping test scores, or frame all discussion of student progress in terms of numbers and data, they are likely applying their own intellectual capacity to harnessing your kids’ intelligence for test-score improvement. These regimes carry with them a powerful psychological reorganization of reality, and whole school systems can find their better knowledge about educational excellence cast aside in favor of dangerous fictions and short-term thinking.

A certain kind of curriculum distortion tends to follow—specifically: the kind that downplays arts, cognitive complexity, advanced reasoning, precise language usage and creativity, focusing instead on how to solve the specific kind of math or reading-comprehension problems found on standardized tests.

If your school’s administrators talk a lot about math and science as skill areas for future growth, but emphasize active learning of art, music, precise language usage, cognitive complexity, advanced reasoning and even physical education, as vital for the healthy development of the individual mind, then they are likely focusing on producing the best outcome for your kids.

Here too, a certain kind of curriculum enhancement tends to follow—specifically: emphasizing students’ ability to experience a wide range of intellectual, physical and psycho-synthetic challenges, so their ability to synthesize the substance of their experience into one fabric of imaginative practical capacity (talent) is expanded and fortified for future application.

Recommendations

  1. Ask for more programs, with richer content, creative practice and physical experience, for your kids.
  2. Ask administrators to do what they are supposed to do—succeed by making themselves, and the regime of administrative labor, invisible. Their work should be so effective that everyone else is empowered, without even noticing the achievement, to do what they do and to excel.
  3. Talk to educators, parents, community leaders, and elected officials about what will actually work to achieve the ultimate goal of top-quality education: making students into fully intellectually self-reliant full-functioning citizens of a vibrant democracy.
  4. Make sure arbitrary qualifiers—like impersonal data, test-score tracking, budget itemization and administrative paperwork requirements—are not interfering with genuine instruction and learning.
  5. Look for opportunities to supplement your kids’ school-hours education, then to bring those kind of activities into the school building or school yard.
  6. In your community and across the local apparatus of policy-making, work to build interest in a full-spectrum empowerment paradigm: an education that builds intellectual, civic and professional value for the whole character and ability of each student.

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