American education is at a crossroads and where we go from here will, in large part, determine this country's future as a major player on the world stage. In particular, we have fallen behind several countries in educational achievement.
The United States is 9th among industrialized countries in producing high school graduates and 7th in producing college graduates. Twenty years ago we were first in both categories.
Compared with Europe and Asia, 15 year olds in the United States score below average in applying math skills to real-life tasks. The top countries are Finland, Korea, The Netherlands, Japan, Canada and Belgium.
Among the 38 industrialized countries in the world, America does best in reading, ranking 7th. The down side of this statistic is that the gap between America's best readers and its worst readers is greater than any other country.
We rank 9th in science, 20th in problem solving and 24th in math.
We live in an ever shrinking world and the things that happen to us are more influenced by other countries than ever before and that shrinkage will continue. If we're going to be competitive on the world stage, as we've been in the past, we must do better educationally, an area we've seen spiral downward over the past quarter century.
But where do we start? The obvious place is with quality teaching. Departments of Education in college and universities across the country typically are fairly close to the bottom among college majors in attracting students with high GPA's and test scores. This means that the typical public school system isn't attracting the best and the brightest; they're, in fact, attracting just the opposite.
While colleges and universities continue to do well in comparison with other countries, our public education system is not only slipping but will continue to slip until more competent, qualified, and passionate teachers can be recruited and the best way to do that is with economic incentives, based on professional achievement.
This has been a sore spot for teacher's unions forever and continues to be today. But for the first time in memory, a Democratic President is directly confronting these powerful unions, which have always aligned themselves with the Democratic Party, telling them they need to change their game plan before the game is lost forever. And he's doing this by encouraging merit pay rather than across the board salary increases.
Since I've spent my entire career teaching at the college and university level, I've worked in both systems. Systems that are unionized are supported by expertise at the union level and a team of negotiators work for equal percentage pay increases for all faculty members. Schools not unionized evaluate their instructors and professors individually and give the highest raises to those who have high student and administrative evaluations and high student productivity in the classroom. Average teachers receive smaller increases and below-average teachers receive no increases at all and are put on notice to improve or lose their jobs.
I think most people reading this column understands the concept of motivation. Put simply, it's the old carrot and the stick routine. Hold out rewards for individuals and they will work harder to achieve those rewards. Treat everyone the same and some will, but some won't.
Anyone who has ever sat in a classroom at any level knows there is a difference in teachers, just like there's a difference in carpenters, lawyers, plumbers, and doctors. One size doesn't fit all. We're not the same. There are good ones, mediocre ones and bad ones in every profession and capitalism has a way of rewarding the good and punishing the bad.
That tends not to happen, however, when everyone receives the same increase, regardless of their skill and expertise. So even though I'm a union member and the President of our faculty association at the college for the past five years, I support financial rewards based on achievement and accomplishment, rather than longevity and tenure because I think that's the only way we begin to turn our educational deficit around and reclaim our historical spot as the best in the world.