It is a rare day that I am ashamed of America, but today is such a day. Britain's Financial Times called America's educational system "third rate" and the numbers bear them out. The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) finds that America's slide down the educational ladder of industrialized nations continues. Moreover, our consistently poor scores are not simply relative; in absolute terms as well, American students are getting dumber. A few years ago, when I heard about such numbers I was disinclined to believe them. Now that I work at a major state university, and see the products of Texas high schools, I find it all too believable.
Social and cultural factors doubtless play a big role in all this. Schools alone are not to blame. But the evidence is clear that what happens in the classroom matters, and that underperforming schools are contributing hugely to the problem.
The Financial Times clearly articulated the two things American education needs: "accountability and competition." What does accountability demand? "Firing the worst teachers and shutting the worst schools." And competition? "School vouchers if you want to be radical, or the faster expansion of self-governing charter schools if you do not." The answers are obvious enough.
But will it happen? Don't count on it. "Teachers' unions have a death grip on the system and are having none of it." Let me be more specific: the National Education Association, with its 3.2 million members and $300 million annual lobbying budget is the single biggest obstacle to good schools in America. Members of the NEA: YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. Abandon your union and the job security of your failing colleagues and try actually putting the interests of America's children first.
And lest you think that this is just my right-wing, small-government, anti-union rant, let me point out that the poor and minorities suffer most in America's schools. Al Sharpton - who recently called school reform "the civil rights challenge of our time" - agrees with me on this one.
And I will now step down from my soapbox...