By James M. Coram
Community College Times
December 14, 1999
WASHINGTON—The “toughest challenge” for America in the next decade will be to educate “the mid-kids—the whole technician class,” a renowned journalist told the National Education Goals Panel here this month.
At present, “we are forgetting half of the American educational system,” said Hedrick Smith, a former New York Times correspondent and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. “They are on a track to nowhere.”
Smith, along with four other speakers, helped set the stage for two-day conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the creation of the National Education Goals Panel—a bipartisan body made up of eight governors, four members of Congress, four state legislators and presidential appointees. The panel gathers data to measure the nation’s progress in meeting goals to improve the quality of education for all Americans.
“This is a critical issue,” Smith said. “The risk we have is that we feel we’re number one.” He urged the panel to take a more cautious look, using a global benchmark.
When using that benchmark, “the competition is stacked against you,” Smith told the panel. Universal education is “number one or number two” in terms of national priorities in Asia and in Europe. “The commitment is to educate all children,” he said. “ The commitment is very, very strong to reach every kid.”
And it appears to be succeeding.
“Young people in China,” for example, “are fully convinced that the 21st century is theirs—that education is the key to science, advancement and economic development,” he said. “The adults’ message to children is ‘Learn. That’s the only way to advance.’”
Strong, positive attitudes about the importance of universal education are “crucial to achieving the standards you set,” Smith told the panel.
In Germany, the school principal is on a par with the mayor and the priest in terms of importance, he said. But the United States has different priorities. It ranks 10th in science out of 40 nations worldwide and 21st in math, he said.
“Can you imagine what would happen if college basketball came in 10th in the Olympics?” he asked the panel. News that the nation is 10th in science and 21st in math, however, “is only a one-day shock,” he said.
Americans are very impressed with physical plants, whereas abroad, “they believe very strongly in the close connection between teachers and kids—getting them excited, not worrying about the right answers.”
The average high school in Beijing or Shanghai is better than one of the best high schools in America, he said. And vocational students planning to enter the auto manufacturing field in Germany will learn science and math at a higher level than college-bound U.S. students, he said.
“There is a very stringent academic requirement” in vocational programs abroad where students have a close, intimate link with the professionals in their field of study, he said.
“We are at risk [in America] because our kids are disenchanted,” Smith said. “Education will work if kids are enchanted—excited. There are hundreds of thousands of kids in our high schools who are disenchanted. If we are going to lift our standards, we are going to have to find out where the kids are and go to them….If a teacher doesn’t think all children can be taught, [that person] doesn’t deserve to be a teacher.”
The most difficult challenge, said Smith, is to reach what he calls the “mid-kids—the whole technician class.”
America has a “romance with the four-year degree,” but few other societies have that attitude, Smith said. “There is a level of education that does not require a B.A. Seventy percent of the jobs in the 21st century will not require a B.A.” The nation needs to educate “thinking people” to fill those highly skilled jobs.
“The old blue collar jobs are not there anymore….We have to reach the middle in a way that we haven’t before. The secrets are not profound, just difficult.” The notion that everyone in America deserves a quality education and can be provided it is the underlying thrust of the National Education Goals Panel.
But much more help is needed to educate struggling students, “especially the poorest, to the highest standards,” said Sandra Feldman, president of the million-member American Federation of Teachers.
Poverty is no excuse for providing a poor education, she told the panel. “Inner city schools are sacrificing all the extras that suburban schools take for granted. Without that help, too many schools are falling through the cracks.
“Resources matter. We have chronically short-changed our poorest kids. We have to keep standards-based reform going. We have to continue to demand high standards. We cannot give up on quality education for all our children, especially the neediest.”
Hugh Price, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, expressed dismay that there has not been more progress toward achieving the panel’s goals. “We can create successful schools,” he said. “Why in hell isn’t this happening everywhere when we know it can happen?” States have a “moral and legal obligation” to make it happen, he said.
Price advised the panel to look at military training as an educational model. “The military knows more about educating people rapidly than any other element in society,” he said.
While acknowledging that “there are many miles yet to travel [to meet the panel’s goals] to strengthen America’s educational performance and provide the skills needed to compete in a global economy,” there is much to celebrate, said Kentucky governor Paul E. Patton, the panel chairman.
“The simple language of the goals has had an extraordinary impact,” he said. “We are convinced that educational goals do work. It is clear that the goals have moved the nation in the right direction. Setting goals and monitoring that progress is itself a landmark achievement….There is no question the quality of education has improved over the past decade. There is not question we have a long way to go.”
Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson is the only member of the panel who was present 10 years ago when former President George Bush and the nation’s governors met in Charlottesville, Va., to address the question of whether the nation was preparing Americans to compete on an international scale.
Thompson and the other political leaders attending the Charlottesville conference agreed on six goals to be reached by the year 2000: all children would start school ready to learn; the high school graduation rate would increase to at least 90 percent; students would leave grades four, eight, and 12 with competence in challenging subjects; schools would be safe, disciplined and drug-free; U.S. students would be first in the world in math and science; and every adult American would be literate and equipped with the skills to compete in a global economy. Congress added two more: teachers would have access to professional development and schools would promote partnerships that involve parents in education.
In order to see how the nation has fared in terms of reaching those goals, “we have to look at progress in individual states,” Thompson said.
Indeed, the panel singled out 12 states—Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin—for their “outstanding performance” in meeting one of the eight goals.
“The best way for improvement in education is through comparisons,” said Thompson.. “Nothing drives governors faster than a report that says they don’t measure up in a particular area. Competition is great. We need more comparisons within and to other states.”
Thompson pointed to the accomplishments of the 12 states highlighted by the panel as the kind of example to look for in the future. “In the next 10 years, we will find out what is truly working and how to get that into the classroom throughout the country,” he said.
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley agreed. “The goals we have set are like the North Star –they provide a sense of direction to keep us moving forward,” he said. “The American people have made it very clear that all levels of government should use all the resources available to improve education.”
The National Education Goals Report, “Building a Nation of Learners, 1999,” can be viewed in its entirety on the World Wide Web at http://www.negp.gov