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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lax education endangers nation

On April 18, UNM Provost Chaouki Abdallah sent students an email that contained a link to a newly released report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The report, U.S. Education Reform and National Security, is the work of an independent task force chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein.

The CFR report asserts that the U.S. public education system is making Americans so stupid that the situation is becoming a national security risk. Our very survival as a nation is at stake, according to the task force. Forget the threat of terrorism, the war on drugs, gay marriage or immigration — the real crisis threatening to destroy our nation is ignorance.

The government’s “dumbing-down” program has been extremely effective in creating legions of mindless consumers, but it has become a national security crisis because most young people today are not even fit to serve in the military.

The CFR report cites a recent study on military readiness, which found that 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unqualified to serve in any branch of the armed forces because they have a criminal record, they have “inadequate levels of education” or they’re physically unfit — as in obese.

Students who drop out of high school are unqualified to serve, as are the 23 percent of high school graduates who do graduate from high school but don’t know enough math, science or English to pass the mandatory Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.

The public education system was created in an attempt to give all Americans an equal opportunity to succeed. Historically, it has enabled individuals to achieve their dreams and better themselves through education, and it has fueled the continued innovation, prosperity and security of this country.

The CFR report paints a grim picture for today’s students, however. Confronted by growing economic inequalities and an increasingly competitive global economy, America’s public schools are failing to provide the promised opportunities to our citizens.

Measured against global education standards, too many U.S. schools are failing to teach kids the basic academic skills or knowledge they’ll need to compete and succeed in life.

The failures of America’s public education system are very real, as the report makes clear, and the consequences are already impacting individual students, especially the most vulnerable. For example, for some inner-city kids, education is the only kind of intervention capable of putting them on track to a better life.

The CFR report claims that America’s educational failures pose five distinct threats to national security: threats to economic growth and competitiveness, physical safety, intellectual property, global awareness and national unity and cohesion. In short, America’s failure to educate its people is critically affecting our national security.

Public schools are not producing a sufficiently skilled military or workforce. According to former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, a member of the task force, “We don’t have nearly enough people who are capable in the ‘STEM’ fields: science, technology, engineering and math. When we think about the modern world of defense, the fact that we don’t have people who are capable to do this work is scary.”

In addition to providing cannon fodder for the military-industrial complex, one of the most important, early goals of public schooling was to create an active and engaged citizenry.

Unfortunately, due to budget cuts and meddling by ideologues, many public schools have stopped teaching subjects such as cultural studies, civics or citizenship, leaving students without critical knowledge of their own national history, traditions or values. This is not by accident.

Because of America’s growing xenophobia and the politicization of the system, public schools have failed to make students aware of or care about other cultures or the world at large. In 2002, a National Geographic study found that 11 percent of young people couldn’t even find America on a map. A 1999 study demonstrated that at least 18 percent of Americans were sure the sun revolves around the Earth.

Clearly our education system needs fixing right now if we are to ensure our nation’s future. Long-term thinking has never been a strong suit of the 1 percent, however. Dumbing us down has proved to be an important component of the smash-and-grab economic mentality. Now the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

Most 12th graders in America are unable to describe how laws are passed, cannot name a single Supreme Court decision and are clueless about the functions and the purpose of the U.S.

Constitution or the Bill of Rights. It’s a travesty that American children know so little about their own country. There’s a war on everything else in America, so why not a “War on Ignorance,” too?

The CFR report pointed out that nearly 400 languages are spoken in the United States. This fact should be celebrated; instead, there’s backlash.

Eight in 10 Americans speak English only, and many schools don’t even bother to teach foreign languages anymore. The refusal to teach foreign languages puts American students at a disadvantage with regard to citizens of other countries, many of whom speak more than one language. A lot of immigrants I meet speak better English than most Americans, frankly.

The dismantling of America’s public education system has been disastrous. No Child Left Behind is a complete failure and this fact needs to be acknowledged. What is needed is a complete, well-funded overhaul of America’s public education policy before it’s too late.

The U.S. Education Reform and National Security report is simply the latest evidence suggesting that young people in America are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Far too many lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide the critical context for world events.

The study also found that while spending on U.S. education has increased, the big picture is complicated. There are huge differences in the levels of funding, meaning that resources are allocated differently depending on school, district and state.

Contrary to trends in other civilized nations, the United States spends less to educate at-risk kids than it does to educate well-off students. However, the rich kids in better districts still don’t perform any better on the global scale.

The CFR report understandably calls for greater accountability and transparency in education budgets. It described a bureaucratic environment akin to communism.

The task force recommends three major reforms to improve the educational system and enhance America’s future ability to safeguard the country, compete and collaborate with others and reinforce American leadership worldwide.

First, it encourages governors around the nation to adopt the new Common Core curriculum and expand it to include subjects critical to national security like science, technology and foreign languages.

Second, it advocates basic structural changes that allow parents more discretion in deciding which school their child attends.

Finally, the report calls for state governors and the federal government to establish a “national security readiness audit” to hold educators and policymakers responsible for meeting national expectations in education.

Let’s hope the reforms work.