I think it’s completely appropriate for the president of the United States to address schoolchildren and I think that the concerns about indoctrination and furthering a political agenda are completely overblown.
However, I do want to comment on one thing in the president’s remarks. The president urges kids to devote themselves to their educations:
Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.
And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But, unfortunately, the converse isn’t true. It’s possible to work as hard as you can, graduate from high school or even college, and still not be able to get a good job. To understand how that can be so you’ve got to consider the numbers.
In the United States there are more than 35,000 high schools (roughly 25,000 public high schools and 10,000 private high schools according to the Digest of Education Statistics, 2001, Table 89). That means that if the #1 student in each of those schools did well, graduated from college, and applied to medical schools half would be rejected because there are only that many available billets in medical schools. It’s probably even worse than that. My intuition is that 90% of physicians went to about 10% of the schools. Someday I really must explain what I mean by some of the terms I use. By “intuition” I mean that I don’t have any proof but I do think that’s the case.
The same is true of many of the really good jobs. To become an associate at a top law firm you’ve got to have graduated from a top law school, to get into a top law school you’ve got to have graduated from an elite college, and so on.
Additionally, our economy isn’t creating enough new jobs, particularly in the sciences, for kids to qualify for when they graduate. That isn’t just true now in a recession in which the economy has shed, literally, millions of jobs. That’s been true for a decade during which the economy was allegedly booming and during which the number of jobs created has fallen short of the number of young men and women entering the work force.
President Obama isn’t precisely the best messenger for his message but he’s an excellent example of the point I’m making. Because of his grandparents’ financial resources and clout he was able to attend an elite school in Hawaii, Punahou. I’ve got college friends who graduated from Punahou and there’s no question in my mind that it’s an elite school.
Despite being, by his own account, a mediocre student he graduated, eventually got into Columbia University where he didn’t particularly distinguish himself academically, and then entered Harvard Law School where he did distinguish himself.
How did he accomplish all of this? It almost certainly wasn’t hard work. I would suggest a combination of native intelligence, money, and pull (of various kinds).
I suppose President Obama could have said “work hard in your crappy, boring, mediocre high school and you might qualify for a crappy, boring, mediocre job” but that doesn’t sound particularly good in a speech.
Rather than whining about the unfairness of it all I’m going to urge President Obama and all of us to keep faith with the promise that President Obama is making in his speech which is, essentially, the promise that has been called “the American dream”.
The problem isn’t simply one of money. We are paying a half trillion dollars per year educating young people in this country. There is a dreary similarity between the problems in healthcare and the problems in education. On a per capita (i.e. per child educated) basis we are paying a multiple for education of what any other developed country is paying and getting poorer results than practically any other developed country.
We need to decide what sort of country we want to be. If we’re going to be a country defined by birth, money, and connections, we should accustom ourselves to racial, ethnic, regional, and other set-asides, quotas, and other methods of leveling that playing field because we can’t afford simply to dismiss the greater proportion of our population.
If we’re going to be a country in which more people have more opportunities, proportional to their abilities and to how hard they work, we’re going to need an economy that creates a lot more high quality jobs and we’re going to need to change our educational system.
The problems in education aren’t the students and they aren’t that we’re not spending enough. The problems are systemic. We’re spending the money foolishly. Here are a handful of the things that we need to change but they’re merely scratching the surface:
- Resources need to be concentrated where they’re needed, not necessarily where the money is coming from. We’ve got to abandon the real estate tax as the primary vehicle for funding schools.
- Bureaucracy is one of the biggest problems. We’ve got to re-engineer education so that isn’t the case. Staffs must be trimmed so that more resources can be devoted to the key mission, education.
- Pay expectations for administrators in the highest levels have got to be reduced. The fact of the matter is that we’re not attracting top executives away from businesses, top school administrators don’t get jobs as top executives in business, and the notion that the standard for pay for top school administrators should be that they should be competitive with the private sector is patently absurd.
- We need to reaffirm and revitalize a commitment to the public schools. Most kids in the United States will attend public schools. That’s just what the numbers dictate. Doing otherwise means we’re just dismissing most of our students.
- Leaders need to lead by example and not just with words. Here in Illinois right now we’re dealing with a scandal in which people who had connections got admitted to slots in law school they weren’t qualified for. That’s a perfect example of the role of clout. What’s the message here? Work hard so you’ll get bumped by the son of an alderman?
- Higher education needs to adjust the number of billets available in their programs to the number of jobs available. We need to stop graduating so many English and art majors unless there are jobs for English and art majors to do. The students are not the customers in education. “Supply and demand” doesn’t mean teaching students what they want to be taught.
This is going to be a lot harder than graduating from high school.