Periscope Depth

we can talk, but money talks, so talk more bucks

I’d have an easier time getting fired up about improving public schools if I believed in the power of managerial liberalism to do anything someone could explain to me why it’s so urgent.

Yes, generational poverty – where people are born poor and have poor kids who grow up to have more poor kids – is terrible. Yes, a better education gives kids access to better trades and college opportunities, which can lift them out of poverty.

But I almost never see the case for education made in those terms. Instead, every time someone laments the sorry state of American schools, they bring up Finland:

The report takes a close look at how the countries that are kicking our academic butts — Finland, China and Canada — recruit, prepare and evaluate teachers. What it finds are policy agendas vastly different from our own, in which prospective educators are expected to spend a long time preparing for the classroom and are then given significant autonomy in how to teach, with many fewer incentives and punishments tied to standardized tests.

Finland, for example, requires all teachers to hold a master’s degree in education and at least an undergraduate major in a subject such as math, science or literature.

And Klein’s not alone in comparing the U.S. to the rest of the world. Here, for instance, is President Barack Obama, addressing the University of Texas last August:

“In a single generation, we’ve fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults,” Obama said, citing recent statistics showing the United States ranks 12th globally in the percentage of a young adults who hold at least an associate’s degree.

And here’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (same article):

“We got a little self-satisfied and other countries have, I think, out-worked us,” Duncan said. “They have out-invested. They have taken this more seriously, and I think this is a wake-up call.”

“Kicking our butts.” “Fallen from first place.” “Wake-up call.” Should I be worried?

Call me naive, but if I read news reports that Finland is producing smarter children than the U.S., my first reaction is, “Hire more Finns.” That’s clearly where the smart money’s going. Lower the visa requirements for Finnish immigrants. Patronize more Finnish businesses. How does Finland’s educational success hurt us? Why is it a “wake-up call” that needs to be answered?

Why is eking higher math scores out of American children a priority? I understand the drive to help poor kids do better in school, or at least get better opportunities. But why do America’s poorest kids have to do better than Europe? What’s the downside of coming in second, or tenth, if Americans trade freely with other nations?

Part of this stems from the remnants of a Cold War mentality. The U.S. wanted to be ready to launch missiles, battleships and ground troops at any point on the globe at a moment’s notice. And when you view the whole planet – from Argentina to Russia to China – as a potential battlefield, the success of other countries becomes a threat.

The other part of this stems from the “we are all us” cheerleading that democracy fosters. America’s primacy in one field makes things better for all Americans. If the Dow Jones Industrial Average is rising, then it doesn’t matter how unemployed you are: you’re doing great! Similarly, if America’s teens can’t get above 1100 on the SATs, it’s bad for all Americans. Even if the majority of what we buy already comes from countries that have higher test scores (China, Japan).

Anyone can find evidence of American imperialism in troop movements and carrier groups. It takes a real crank cynic to find evidence of American imperialism in the Department of Education.

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