Not only is the management of US corporations currently in sharp decline. Studies show that US education also puts the future in peril. Yet there is no sign that politicians will put aside partisan squabbling to deal with a national emergency. Short-term political point-scoring wins continues to be more important than long-term national interest.
At best, this is being discussed, if at all, as an issue of leadership, i.e. more talk. The reality is that we are looking a grave failure of national management. We need less talk and more effective action.
As an article in the The Atlantic showed recently, inputs have rapidly increased, without a proportionate increase in outputs. Per student, the US now spends more than all but three other countries—Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway—on elementary and secondary education, but with poor results.
Even the best state in the US--Massachusetts--is behind sixteen other countries. Moreover relatively privileged students do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries: for example in Illinois, the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who are highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, France, Estonia, and Sweden.
Despite these disastrous outputs, the political focus is still on inputs—such as how much money we are pouring into the system or how small our class sizes are—and wind up with little to show for it. Since the early 1970s, the US has doubled the amount of money it spends per pupil nationwide, but the high-schoolers’ reading and math scores have barely budged.
Where is the courage to face the brutal truth and to do something about it? What has happened to the national character? Can we find the moral fiber to deal with an issue of common concern?
THE LATEST SIGN OF DECLINE
The New York Times reports that students in Shanghai have surprised experts by outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries, in reading as well as in math and science, according to the results of a respected exam.
The results reflect the culture of education in Shanghai, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.
“Schools work their students long hours every day, and the work weeks extend into the weekends,” it said.
Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects. Also, in recent years, teaching has rapidly climbed up the ladder of preferred occupations in China, and salaries have risen. In Shanghai, the authorities have undertaken important curricular reforms, and educators have been given more freedom to experiment.
“Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, referring to the groundbreaking Soviet satellite launching.
“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”
Yet there is no sign that politicians will put aside partisan squabbling to deal with a national emergency. Short-term political point-scoring wins continue to be more important than long-term national interest. Words are not followed by action.
In math, the Shanghai students performed in a class by themselves, outperforming second-place Singapore, which has been seen as an educational superstar in recent years. The average math scores of American students put them below 30 other countries.
PISA scores are on a scale, with 500 as the average. Two-thirds of students in participating countries score between 400 and 600. On the math test last year, students in Shanghai scored 600, in Singapore 562, in Germany 513, and in the United States 487.
In reading, Shanghai students scored 556, ahead of second-place Korea with 539. The United States scored 500 and came in 17th, putting it on par with students in the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and several other countries.
In science, Shanghai students scored 575. In second place was Finland, where the average score was 554. The United States scored 502 — in 23rd place — with a performance indistinguishable from Poland, Ireland, Norway, France and several other countries.
The testing in Shanghai was carried out by an international contractor. Read the full NYT report here
COLLEGE EDUCATION FACES SIMILAR ISSUES
The cost of a US college education is ridiculous. The Economist points out: “College fees have for decades risen faster than Americans’ ability to pay them. Median household income has grown by a factor of 6.5 in the past 40 years, but the cost of attending a state college has increased by a factor of 15 for in-state students and 24 for out-of-state students. The cost of attending a private college has increased by a factor of more than 13 (a year in the Ivy League will set you back $38,000, excluding bed and board). Academic inflation makes medical inflation look modest by comparison.”
Yet when college presidents are challenged to show in what respects rising costs had generated a better educational value, no answers are given. The attitude is the standard bureaucratic one: "You must pay for what we make."
College presidents are nevertheless quite effective in looking after themselves. Thirty college presidents now earn more than $1 million in salary and benefits. None did in 2004.
BOTTOM LINE: RADICALLY DIFFERENT MANAGEMENT
The same debilitating incapacity to manage effectively that afflicts US corporations thus also cripples the US education system. In this way, we are mortgaging the future. The current problems of the economy are harbingers of worse things that are to come unless there is basic change.
What to do? We don't need more leadership speeches. We don't need more inputs or resources. We need the courage, the character, the moral fiber and the smarts to implement radically different management.
To learn what is involved, read my synthesis of recent thinking on the subject, or read The Power of Pull by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, or Reorganize for Resilience by Ranjay Gulati, or my own new book, The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century radically different management.