The Greatest Challenge Facing the United States in the Future
Note from dshort: Our growing government debt and the demographic challenges posed by the aging boomer population are problems that I frequently touch upon. In the commentary below, Gordon Green focuses on a particularly troubling twist to these problems: The distinct possibility that future generations may lack the education to address them.
The current economic situation is very grim, but our existing problems are minor compared to what could happen in the next ten years or so if we do not meet impending challenges. Our nation is resting on the edge of an economic precipice. We already have a national debt of more than $16.0 trillion, without any good prospects of paying it off any time soon. There are 78 million people in the Baby Boom generation, and 10,000 of them will be turning 65 years old every day of the year for the next 20 years. They will exert tremendous demands on Social Security and Medicare, both of which are pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) systems. This means that it will be up to current and future generations of workers to pay the taxes to support these programs. The question is, will they be able to do it? According to the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), based on comparisons with 30 nations around the world, our 15-year-old students are in the bottom half of reading literacy, the bottom third of scientific literacy, and the bottom fifth of mathematics and problem-solving literacy. Will they be able to compete with the up-and-coming future workers in other nations who will work for much lower wages? Under present conditions, it is very doubtful.
Most of the education officials and policymakers who have thought about how to meet these challenges have had a very difficult time finding a viable solution. We have spent billions of dollars on efforts such as No Child Left Behind, and now Race to the Top, and it is very difficult to identify the benefits. We have experienced several decades of virtually no improvement or decline in student achievement (witness the most recent SAT scores). The U.S. Department of Education and the education community at large have focused on the "supply side" — better schools, better curriculum, better teachers, better standards, etc. Although some of these efforts have been worthwhile, they have not accomplished the hoped for goal of raising student achievement. Now the critics are blaming our teachers. They are cutting their pay, cutting their benefits, meddling in their affairs, and imposing burdensome rules and regulations on them. This approach will exacerbate the situation and chase away the good teachers that we do have. Although we do have some marginal teachers who need to be either rehabilitated or removed, they are not the crux of the problem.
The crux of the problem is that we need to concentrate on the "demand side" — the students themselves. We need to motivate our students and teach them the specific study skills that they need to succeed. It is not enough to tell them to work and study hard, because they will not know what to do. We are not going to turn the present dismal education situation around unless we directly reach the students and get them moving in the right direction. In these austere financial times, this is also the most fiscally prudent course of action to take. I have written two books for Tom Doherty Associates, part of Macmillan Publishers, which show parents how to work with students for academic success and teach students the fundamental study skills that they need to perform at the highest academic level. How to Get Straight A's in School and Have Fun at the Same Time (Forge, 1999) is intended for students in elementary and middle school. Making Your Education Work for You (Forge, 2010) is intended for students in high school and college (at both the undergraduate and graduate levels). Students who have used these study methods have had enormous success.
The current and future challenges we face as a nation are solvable if students (and future workers) develop their human capital to the fullest extent possible. The stakes are very high. It is not an overstatement to say that our entire standard of living and the future success of our nation rest with correcting our education problems. There is no larger or more important task facing our nation.
(c) 2012 by Gordon W. Green, Ph.D