August 17, 2011

“If we put our minds to it, there’s nothing we can’t do together as Americans,” said Rick Perry on the stump yesterday. “Why, if we really apply ourselves over the next 10 or 20 years, we can have schools as good as those in Estonia or Slovenia!”

Okay, the Texas governor didn’t say that. But he could have. Because matching the math achievement of students in Estonia or Slovenia — or Slovakia or Iceland — or Norway, Sweden and Denmark — not to mention Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France and Belgium — would represent an achievement that has eluded Perry after a decade in the saddle. It’s also eluded leaders in just about every other state. And that’s before we compare our states to true world-beating education systems in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Finland, whose students outperform U.S. kids by so vast a margin it makes you wonder why parents and employers haven’t launched a revolution.

“Where’s the outrage?” is always the last cry of those losing a political argument, but when it comes to Americans’ complacency over mediocre schools, things get more complicated. Poor families know perfectly well that their kids are getting the shaft, but they lack the clout to demand (and pay for) better teachers and facilities. And when middle-class parents hear that U.S. schools fare poorly in global assessments, it’s been easy for local leaders to claim they’re exempt from these trends while pointing to modest steps that create the illusion of progress.

Well, now the gig is up — thanks to research being published today by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and the magazine Education Next — and the shocking facts need to become a staple of the 2012 campaign. By finally bringing global comparisons on respected tests down to the state level in a credible, accessible way, “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?,” written by Paul Peterson, Ludger Woessmann, Eric Hanushek and Carlos Lastra-Anadon, has done a great public service.

We know the unfolding campaign will focus on the jobs gap. With this report, the fodder is finally there for the debate we also need on the schools gap — the gap that ultimately matters if our children are to have any chance of preserving their standard of living.

It’s not easy to get presidential candidates off their talking points when it comes to schools. You can probably recite the GOP slogans yourself: Get Washington out of the way. More choice and competition. Hold teachers accountable. Blah, blah, blah.

Here’s my antidote to the anodyne: In the early GOP primary and caucus states, we need parents, educators, CEOs, labor leaders, foundations and the press to come together to trumpet this report’s findings and use them to elevate the issue through high-profile events, special education debates, candidate report cards and everything else they can think of — including creative heckling. Get students themselves to ask candidates why Estonian math scores seem beyond our reach. It’s scary but true: If we don’t demand much more than the usual pabulum on schools from those seeking to lead us, America’s middle class is going the way of the dodo.

Take Iowa (Feb. 6) and New Hampshire (Feb. 14), which have a slightly higher portion of kids at proficient levels in reading and math than the United States as a whole. Sounds good, except that with only 35 percent to 37 percent of their students proficient, that means 10 to 25 other nations (depending on the subject and state) are eating their lunch.

Mitt Romney, “good” school scores in America no longer come close to sufficing in a global economy, so what concrete steps do you propose we take to lift New Hampshire’s kids to Singapore’s or South Korea’s level of achievement? That’s now the benchmark that matters. Those nations recruit teachers from the top third of the academic cohort — we recruit from the middle and bottom. Don’t we have to transform the teaching profession — which means making it pay much, much more — to lure to careers in the classroom the kind of talent our global competitors do (instead of giving top students incentives to work mostly at places like Bain Capital)?

As for folks in Nevada (Feb. 18) and South Carolina (Feb. 28), all I can say is, read the report and weep. In Nevada, 22 percent of the students are proficient in reading and 23 percent in math; in South Carolina, it’s 25 percent and 32 percent, respectively. That places their academic achievement on a par with economic basket cases Portugal and Italy but comfortingly ahead of Croatia and Bulgaria, who are doubtless planning to win the future.

Shanghai, meanwhile — the only Chinese city thus far taking the relevant exam — bests everyone, with nearly 80 percent proficiency in math and 60 percent in reading. Good luck getting a decent job, children of Reno and Spartanburg!

Then comes Florida, whose progress under Jeb Bush is touted as a GOP model. In math, Florida ranks below 34 other nations; in reading, below 15. If Florida is our definition of success, we’re already sunk.

Some note that low-performing minority children drag down U.S. scores, but, as the report shows, white kids in America are getting trounced, too. Isn’t it clear that decades into the school-reform movement, the emperor still has far too few clothes? As Steve Brill’s important and exhaustively reported new book, “Class Warfare,” documents, we’re bogged down in trench warfare between reformers and teachers unions over incremental changes, when we need a full-blown, presidentially led crusade to dramatically up our game.

I used an earlier slice of this new Harvard data in a speech to education stakeholders in Utah not long ago; when folks learned where their kids really stacked up internationally, many looked ready to hang themselves. Yes, the truth hurts, but the path toward renewal starts with an honest look at where we are. That’s the only thing that will inspire us to stop tolerating the charades both parties are peddling and force leaders of all stripes to push toward real answers.

So read the report. Take the cold shower. And then let’s get serious — because we can fix this if we’re determined. As Rick Perry should know, to do otherwise, and live with sound bites and charades when the stakes of schooling are this high, would be, well, treasonous.