There’s a national security crisis in U.S. education. I’m no history sleuth, but it must have come on fast just after February 2010. That’s when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent the last Quadrennial Defense Review up to Capitol Hill, with no mention of U.S. education at all. Two years later, in March 2012, Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice issued a report from the Council on Foreign Relations that declared American education to be so failed as to put U.S. national security at risk.
National security crises can arise suddenly. But education crises? Schooling kids is much as Max Weber once described politics – “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” You can lose a school building or a teacher overnight, but you don’t fall into a national-security-like crisis by mid-morning recess. You don’t get out of it by homeroom the next day, either.
American education today does feel like it’s in crisis. But not the one Rice and Klein would have us believe. Klein and Rice say the problem is: “Johnny still can’t read, ‘rite or ‘rithmetic.” They say tests and standards are the fix. And like George Bush did down at Ground Zero after 9/11, they’ve gone to “The Pile,” megaphone in hand, shouting the alarm. This time, though, it’s not Saddam and WMD. It’s China, Finland, Singapore and our schools.
Few doubt the utility of standards and testing. But as my colleague Stephen M. Walt wrote in his dissent to the Rice-Klein report, the data is all over the place. Last week, for example, we learned that 75 percent of students graduated high school on time, the highest rate in a decade. Progress through grade level is good. Graduation rates are climbing. More are headed to college than ever before.
If we’re going to war, let’s get the problem right.
There is a crisis in American education worth going after hard. It’s one we can fix, and only a fool wouldn’t want to, whether its draped in the American flag or just sitting there quietly waiting to wreak havoc. Almost 1 million K-12 teachers – 29 percent of U.S. public school teachers – say they plan to quit within the next five years. Two years ago it was 17 percent. For those teachers with six to 20 years on the job – the heart of the batting order – 40 percent now say they plan to wave the white flag.