About a year ago, a well-respected international organization released its comprehensive assessment of student achievement across 34 different countries. As you may remember, the results for the United States were abysmal, with, for instance, our students ranking only 25th in math. At the same time, students in China — likely the top competitors for the next generation of Americans in various fields — aced every single academic category.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it “a massive wake-up call to the entire country.” The challenge we face — the “brutal fact” — as he put it, is that many countries “are far ahead of us and improving more rapidly than we are.”
Well said. Indeed, the need for a collective mind shift on education has never been clearer — and it is something we owe to our children if they are to have a hope of competing in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.
Encouragingly, there are anecdotal signs that the seeds of that shift are starting to take root; I recently read The Washington Post and was surprised to see this headline on the cover: “Telling kids they’re great isn’t so good, schools find.”
The liberal-leaning newspaper then brutally laid into the establishment education culture that has prevented so many children from realizing their true potential. “For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement,” it read. “The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains. Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise.”
I’m encouraged to see the pendulum begin to swing toward rewarding achievement, and away from today’s empty “feelings”-based culture — an absurd alternate universe where honor rolls and incentives for high-achievers are wrong, but where rewards are fine if they’re given for participating or “trying” (even if that effort results in failure) — that has let our children down so spectacularly.
And, as we know, the proponents of this “feelings” movement are the very ones that have been driving education policy in this country for decades — the very policy that is now in such desperate need of reform. At the movement’s behest, our country has thrown more money at education than almost any other, has placed the interests of union bosses and other adults above those of children, and has shied away from almost any form of merit-based pay for teachers.
And what do we have to show for it? Twenty-fifth place.
Accordingly, Americans from all walks of life — parents and community leaders, students and ordinary teachers, liberals and conservatives — are now joining together to say “enough.”
They realize that government leaders in Beijing would like nothing more than for our schools to continue embracing this middling path to nowhere. Their children will not be handing out “participation medals” when they compete circles around future generations of Americans, nor will they care how hard our kids tried. As a scholar put it in The Post, whether one wins or loses really does matter in the real world: “You either beat the enemy or you don’t. You either get the gold medal or you get the silver.”
Regaining our competitive edge is going to take significant effort on multiple fronts, but an encouraging course-correct is starting to take hold, and a bipartisan consensus on the need for education reform — including some agreement on the need to take on unions and other powerful anti-reform special interests — is emerging. Even the Obama administration has made some positive, if timid, steps in this direction.
Reform will be difficult, but it is achievable. And, for the sake of our children, we really have no other choice; as the trail-blazing education reformer Michelle Rhee said: “We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things.”
Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees. Visit his Web site at www.kyl.senate.gov or his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/senjonkyl.