By Bruce Smart
Millions of America’s children are returning to their classrooms, carrying hopes for their futures, which depend on what my dictionary calls:
education, n. the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the power of reasoning, judgment, and character, preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life, a process far more complex than memorizing a prescribed set of facts.
Recently the newspapers have been full of down-beat articles and editorials on education – failing schools, high rate of school drop-outs, test scores, rising college tuition, higher interest rates on student loans – and on and on.
The nation seems much concerned – and rightly so. The education our youngsters receive will determine their individual success as contributing citizens, and collectively establish the competence of our future national work force and body politic, essential to the success of our nation in a turbulent and changing world.
Adult Americans are the stewards of our nation’s future. Education of successor generations is thus our most fundamental civic responsibility, whether we have school-age children or not. Every youngster in America deserves, and America has a moral obligation to provide, a quality education allowing each individual to develop abilities up to his/her genetic potential – Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness”.
Ideally, starting in infancy, parents teach their young children social skills: discipline, generosity, fairness and compassion. Hopefully they stimulate intellectual development by reading to youngsters, with conversations and simple projects, and instill beginning numerical and analytic skills. Those parents also provide nutrition and health care.
Later, they work with organized schools and professional teachers from pre-school to college. Combined with a loving home, that is a successful formula for producing well-adjusted, successful young adults.
Sadly, this ideal situation now prevails far less often than when my generation was raising families.
Consider these current facts:
29 percent of children under age 9 live in single parent homes; 50 years ago 9 percent did.
22 percent fall below the poverty line (Blacks and Hispanics exceed 35 percent).
47 percent are born out of wedlock today, versus 11 percent 30 years earlier.
For 900,000 English is a second language; a number that's doubled since 2000.
A child falling in any one of these categories probably enters school well behind those who grew up without such a handicap. Obviously, the first step for disadvantaged children is an effective preschool program that brings them up to readiness for kindergarten.
But pre-school readiness is not the whole problem. America’s job market has changed.
Low wage countries have taken over simple American manufacturing jobs. Educated women once saw teaching as their best career option. Now many are investment bankers. Technology has revolutionized our communications and transportation systems, globalizing finance and industry.
The half-life of a skill or career has been dramatically shortened, calling for a flexible work force able to shift from an old job to a different new one.
Those changes mean that more Americans must have college and postgraduate degrees. In the face of these changes, education’s providers – school boards, principals, teachers, unions and governments – are stuck in the practices of the past.
Most experts concur that the current educational system needs renovation to meet these changing conditions, but change will not be easy.
Powerful vested interests have a stake in the status quo. Disadvantaged Hispanics and other minorities are becoming a greater percentage of our population. And so we are faced with a decline in our educational ranking internationally, from leading the pack to below average among developed countries. Too many schools, and children, are failing, leading to low incomes, crime and other costly social ills.
“Back to school” is not just for children. We must adapt our education system to better serve today’s young people and tomorrow’s work force needs. Fortunately, there are examples that are showing us how this can be accomplished. In future columns we will take a closer look at the education climate in Northern Virginia, and then advance some thoughts of what might be done to restore America’s education system to preeminence.
The future of our nation is at stake.
Bruce Smart is a resident of Loudoun County. He served as U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce from 1985 to 1988 and served on the Virginia Commission on Climate Change.