Not Just a Test

Maybe we have so many problems right now that we’re simply at overload, so much so that there is practically no bad news headline that can hold our attention for very long.  We don’t have enough jobs, we’re stuck in two wars, contractors are fleecing our government when they are supposed to be helping with the wars, we are at internal political gridlock, our tax code is horribly broken, our roads and bridges and pipes are giving out, home prices are going in the wrong direction and too many people are stuck underwater with bad mortgages, and mother nature has been serving up an unusual amount of natural disaster pounding.  That’s not all of it, but it’s a lot.  It’s a wonder we aren’t in a worse mood.

So when yet another negative headline comes at us, it is any wonder it’s a one day wonder, if that, and we just don’t have any appetite to deal with it?  No, human nature at a certain point just shuts down, so it’s understandable.  But I think this one is core, and we can’t let it go:

Last week we learned that U.S. SAT scores for reading and writing hit a new low, with math scores also declining.  Here’s a quick summary as noted in the Wall Street Journal:

The results from the college-entrance exam, taken by about 1.6 million students, also revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam. Students had to score a 1550 out of a possible 2400 to meet that benchmark, which would indicate a 65% chance of getting at least a B-minus average in the first year of college, the Board calculated.

Okay, so not everyone does great on tests, it’s an acquired skill, and not everyone is college bound.  What’s the big deal?  Quoting further:

“At the precise time the importance of a college degree is increasing, the ability of the U.S. to compete in a global economy is decreasing,” said Jim Montoya, vice president of the College Board. “We, as a nation, have to do a better job preparing our kids for college.”

Let’s go back to the litany of problems, starting with the one about which President Obama recently gave a special speech to a joint session of Congress and the American People.  In that speech, the President said that right now, Job #1 is Jobs.  Barring some untold natural or unnatural crisis on the horizon, I am guessing that Job #1 doesn’t change through the next Presidential election.  After that, Jobs will probably remain Job #1 until unemployment is below 7% or so, which could be a long, long time — and there is no guarantee that it will ever be corrected, we have no natural entitlement to Jobs.  We have to create them.

Is there not a little irony here?  Is it possible we are trying to solve a problem in the short-term that was created in the long-term and can only be solved in the long-term?  Do we not see a link between falling test scores and an inability to compete?  Perhaps it’s fair to say that’s a little abstract, even obtuse — we all know plenty of well-educated, intelligent people who are out of work, so maybe that’s not the problem.  But let’s try to roll the clock forward a generation or two, at which time it is likely yours truly and many of you will be but particles of dust and memories.  Is there anyone who believes if a lot more than 43% of our kids can’t do better than 1550 out of 2400 that we are going to be the first stop on the investment train?  I’m not talking goosing the scores through prep programs and gaming strategies, I’m talking read the paragraph and answer the question, add the numbers in a column, writing a few coherently linked sentences that make a point.  That can’t be too much to ask for a high majority of the citizens of the #1 economy in the world, unless that doesn’t matter to us anymore either.

How did we slip?  Well, just when we got a little too distracted by so many consumer options created by our magnificent economy, as Thomas L. Friedman told us, the World Got Flat.  Competition for jobs become global.  Demand for commodities became global.  The internet and telecom made easy information exchange global.  Industrial contracts are up for bid regardless of geography.  Lots more people are attending many more years of school in places like India and China — and they are taking school very seriously, as an opportunity and a privilege, a gift that lets them advance the way we thought about education when our middle class was emerging over 100 years ago.

If we don’t think of education as a gift but instead a legal mandate to be tolerated, how do we compete in a world that is flat?  If we don’t use the time we have to be here with each other to absorb the knowledge collective, how much of life have we missed?  If our kids don’t learn math and science and history and language, what kind of leaders will they fall prey to electing?  Learning is at the core of prosperity, fulfillment, and public safety.  Why aren’t we treating it that way?

We can’t afford to let this be just another piece of bad news, another negative headline that just goes by because we are overwhelmed.  If we want to fix the problem at its core, we need to think long-term.  This isn’t unemployment, this isn’t terrorism, this isn’t social security or Medicare, this isn’t the banking system, this isn’t GNP, this isn’t an emergency brought on by the ground shaking or the winds howling or the rivers flooding.  It isn’t even global warming or protecting our precious planet.  I get it, we have a lot of priorities, too much to fix and not enough dough to fix it all.

I would still make our education system our #1 priority — because if we don’t fix that, the other stuff is just going to stay broken.

It’s not just a test.  It’s an evaluation, a form of measurement, a benchmark, an early warning system.  We’re getting bad grades.  We need to do better.  Shame on us for letting it slip to this level.  We either get on it now, or we don’t.

I say hit the books — make that Job #1.