The Obama administration has released its first cut of the national standards for language and mathematics this month. This is an excellent first step in the right direction to create healthy minds but it is being overlooked because the political oxygen is being sucked out of Washington by the President’s efforts to produce healthy bodies. The reality is that the two are complementary, not substitutes, so must be given equal attention at the same time.
It is unclear how these standards will be applied by the states within the framework of the current funding for public education to ensure harmonization of school quality across the country. The problem with funding education is, however, not new. It goes back to the seminal Brown v. Board of Education case that had focused more on integrating the nation’s schools to ensure equitable funding to both blacks and whites, but we still live in an America, more than half-a-century later, where school quality is suffering because of poor funding patterns to well-integrated schools.
Racial integration has happened, but without the corresponding wherewithal to pay for the education of the integrated. America is still torn between its well-compensated educated elites and those who miss out on the entitlements of the upper echelons of America’s meritocratic social order because they had not received the same education through, more importantly, in the formative period from pre-kindergarten to high school. No two school districts are alike, hence the legitimate need for national standards. Indeed, it takes a village to raise a child.
It is also not clear how the gifted and naturally better performing students will be distinguished by the school systems and the curriculum to advance them at the appropriate pace, because it is not enough to focus only on those in the back of the class. Americans have learned to make up during college what they had not learned through high school after moving from what essentially is a dysfunctional public school system into the best higher education system anywhere in the world. And even that, since the ‘80s has been systematically eviscerated in favor of the few elite private colleges which admit into their ranks less than 10 per cent of all graduating high-school seniors in the country, contributing to the rising costs of education across the board to ensure success in life and society. Even the President of the United States recommends that Americans must go to the Harvards and Princetons like him and his wife if they expect to lead the country some day.
This small percentage of those, however, who receive the best of what the country has to offer poses a human capital threat to the future of the United States, particularly as the rest of the world rises to focus on its own development and growth 65 years after World War II. The steady drain of immigrant talent from American shores that had made this country great because their own want to keep them could sound the death knell for the United States more than the country’s inability to borrow from foreigners for its way of life. America must regroup to educate its own within a generation. So, it is time to change it all if the United States is to remain competitive in the emerging and integrating global economy because what is at stake is the worldview that America espouses for itself and the world.
The new world that is emerging 234 years after 1776 is staggeringly complex because of its scale and diversity of perspective unlike the America that was shaped by the Anglo-American identity that had founded it since 1776. The United States has itself become a country that is a microcosm of the world, increasingly governed by the principles underlying its constitution rather than any specific sense of racial or ethnic social order as is common in most other countries even today.
Some, such as the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard, see it as a threat. But it may be an opportunity to communicate to the world the ability of the United States to assimilate without the eradication of non-Anglo-American linguistic and cultural heritages of its immigrants, for such is a world that will result as a matter of the the natural course of the historical process, as it integrates over the course of this century, perhaps on occasion turbulently, but more often hopefully peacefully.
The common bonds that bind Americans are its constitution, the English language and its currency. The rest of American life is a tapestry of individual (not group) choice, of race, religion, language and cultural preferences. In fact, at its birth this is what the United States was envisioned to become. This most fundamental American value of transcendence across human social divides can only be inculcated through upbringing in the social unit of the family and through formal schooling that reinforces that same value, and the two therefore are necessary complements to ensuring healthy minds and the social stability.
A system of education that can prepare Americans to engage better with the rest of the world must include the study of the major world religions from Grades 1 through 12 in the original languages: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Chinese, Greek, Latin and Arabic. Proficiency in a world language other than English, the medium of instruction, must be the standard requirement for graduating from high school. Optional programs must be available in schools as a matter of the national standard in the language arts and in geography to field students in national contests such as the spelling bee and geography bee, rather than leaving it to individual initiative.
Besides the language arts, it would be beneficial to place equal emphasis on both western and eastern traditions in theater, film, dance, music, painting and sculpture from middle school through high school to elevate the cultural depth and appreciation of the graduating high school seniors and for the society to become more culturally rich and creative.
Just as European reconstruction after World War II has gradually brought down to a trickle the number of European scientists and technologists coming to America, the end of the Cold War is also ending the immigration of millions of Asians into American natural sciences and technology. In the last two decades, finance has become the magnet even for the scientists, doctors, and technologists, making them leave their expensive training behind to pursue the art of money spinning on Wall Street. This trend must be reversed to preserve America’s economic competitiveness. Optional programs must be a part of the national school standards to field students in national and international contests in mathematics and physics to ensure domestic American innovation.
All testing for graduation from primary school, middle school and high school must be centralized so that performance is comparable across schools around the country to eliminate the need for separate standardized testing for college entry. Going to school and studying well must be sufficient to obtain a quality college education, whether that college is in Cambridge, Massachusetts or in Fairbanks, Alaska. The choice of an undergraduate educational institution must be a matter of personal preferences, not a requirement for upward social mobility. And both of these objectives, from primary and secondary schooling through college, cannot be realized without the standardization of core curricula across all schools and universities that receive tax payer funds along with electronic national educational records to make geographic mobility between educational institutions as feasible as the proposed accessibility of electronic health records.
To resolve the unresolved Brown v. Board of Education problem, most importantly, private and public educational institutions, including undergraduate programs, must compete for partial tuition revenues through a national voucher system that is funded through progressive federal taxation and not through local property taxes. Without extricating education funding from local governments, true education reform is not feasible and national standards would be rendered ineffective.