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Education, Our Non-Priority

By Nikolas Foster

"The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens," President Obama noted this spring. Politicians claim education as a priority on both sides of the Atlantic. German Chancellor Merkel declared education the "central task for the next century."

Big words -- yet the Great Recession is testing politicians' promises. In spite of increased fiscal spending, U.S. students in primary and secondary schools from coast to coast are watching their teachers being laid off en masse, while some districts are installing four-day school weeks to cope with the budget crises. At the same time, students across Europe are demonstrating for better education.

It is almost surreal: As Californians shrug at the 25,000 teachers to be laid off, students in Europe are calling for more teachers, greater spending, and educational reform. Do we not care enough, or are they making too much of a fuss?

The situation in the U.S. was already quite bad; now it is becoming worse. Whereas the student-teacher ration in European public secondary education is about 12:1, in the US it is closer to 17:1. And in the 2006 science evaluation of the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. scored significantly lower than the OECD average -- lower than Finland, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic, France and 11 other European countries. (The PISA survey is conducted every three years, so it will be interesting to see how these trends have continued, or changed, when 2009 data is released.)

European students might also reconsider asking for more money. With over $10,000 spent on secondary education per student, the U.S. exceeds the OECD average by over $2500 and the EU 19 average by $2,800. More money won't solve the problem, as top-ranked Finland illustrates: with only $7,325 spent on higher education, it continuously scores top places in the reading, writing and science categories of PISA.

Not all is running smoothly in Europe, of course. Integrating immigrants is still a huge problem in many countries, where second-generation immigrants sometimes do worse in school than their parents did. But so far, there have not been massive teacher layoffs -- even though budgets are tight.

The question is how we will remember these times. Will we look back and ask about the educational bailout that should have followed AIG and GM? If, following Obama's logic, the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens, it will be a tough road ahead for the recession generation currently in school. Apart from burdening U.S. students with paying off the fiscal expansion, laying off teachers further diminishes their ability to compete in a world demanding highly trained professionals. Perhaps they should be the ones protesting in the streets.

Nikolas Foster is a graduate student in Energy and Environmental Policy and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (3)

moebius22 Author Profile Page:

Giving more money to an unresponsive bureaucracy is a waste of time. If the public schools were putting out better results, it would be easier to make the case for not cutting funding. DC has the worst schools in the nation and yet the school bureaucracy and the teacher’s union still oppose change.

anofech Author Profile Page:

If America's industries are to be competitive, American education should be able to produce vast numbers of engineers with advanced degrees, because in today's industries a bachelors degree is often not enough.

It has to be done at moderate cost, otherwise large numbers of US-trained professionals would not be affordable.

It is not clear to me at all how it can be achieved but there are examples that prove this is possible.

dummy4peace Author Profile Page:

This is the first time I saw Mr. Foster's posting and I am surprised nobody else has commented on it since June 22nd.

What I like the most about this posting is that "More money won't solve the problem,..." cited Finland as one excellent example. We outspent most countries, but have very little to show for it. Our poor public education has resulted in poor consumer behavior when homeowners signed for a mortgage they did not understand and now their homes are foreclosed. The mortgage has helped create a domino effect on our economy and the world economy. Had we had a better math education in public schools, we could have avoided this recession. We could have produced many more qualified workers after the union jobs were shipped overseas.

What we badly need is not more funding for education, but to hire only teachers trained in the field they teach. For example, math teachers must have a bachelor's degree in math to start. Chemistry teachers must have a chemistry degree and so on. There should be no reason why there are math classes for a math major and easier math classes for teachers-to-be. Having somebody that doesn't like or even hate math to teach math is the worst punishment one can do to our kids.

'Teach for America' is a wonderful program, which has produced measurable success in math education, because they use math majors to teach math and chemistry majors to teach chemistry. Sadly, the NYC Teachers Union has switched to hire union teachers before they hire Teach for America teachers. This brings us the question: Should teachers get tenure? Will Teachers' Unions become UAW-like and own the schools? Your opinions are deeply appreciated.

I had hoped for education to be the No. 1 issue in our last election. Unfortunately, it seemed to have been the last issue as always. German Chancellor Merkel declared education the "central task for the next century.", because she, a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry, understands fully what education can do for the human race. When can we elect a Ph.D. in whatever discipline for president? One big problem we have is that most Ph.D.s in this country are foreign born. Why can't we produce more American-born Ph.D.s? I love democracy. However, IF the whole world becomes democratic, we will be in deep trouble when no bright minds want to come here any more. We must revamp our education ASAP by hiring the right teacher for the subject. Laying off or retraining unqualified teachers isn't a bad idea really. Again, more comments are much appreciated. Thanks!

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