A Plan to Beat China

Thomas Friedman is calling for a plan to beat China, and to put the U.S. back on its feet in the world in both economics and education. The two, of course, are related. As always, in his latest piece Thomas Friedman does a very good job of framing the issue in an understandable way for the masses. He writes:

America today reminds me of a working couple where the husband has just lost his job, they have two kids in junior high school, a mortgage and they’re maxed out on their credit cards. On top of it all, they recently agreed to take in their troubled cousin, Kabul, who just can’t get his act together and keeps bouncing from relative to relative. Meanwhile, their Indian nanny, who traded room and board for baby-sitting, just got accepted to M.I.T. on a full scholarship and will be leaving them in a few months. What to do?

Only, I don’t think in America’s case the father has lost his job. Most Americans are still working and paying taxes. It’s not a revenue problem that is driving U.S. debt worries. Over the past 12 months Uncle Sam has been given $2.3 trillion of Americans’ money. That would equal the world’s sixth-largest country by GDP if the government were a sovereign nation! That’s larger than the entire GDP of Russia ($2.2 trillion). What exactly is the government doing with all that money? And how can a country like Russia be considered a threat to the U.S. when our government outspends its entire GDP?

The solution Friedman is looking for presents itself to America every day: cut spending, cut spending, cut spending. We simply cannot afford the programs we are attempting to pay for. Our competitiveness in the world is being eroded by our focus on propping up inefficient government programs that sap the economic will and resources of the nation for projects with Keynesian multipliers that are less than one. For those non-economists out there, less than one is bad. In other words, for every dollar the government spends, it generates less than a dollar’s worth of GDP.

Friedman goes on to cite poor education in America as one reason we’re falling behind:

We’re in a hole and still digging. Our educational attainment levels are stagnating; our infrastructure is fraying. We don’t have enough smart incentives to foster both innovation and manufacturing; we’re not importing enough talent in an age when we have to compete for jobs with low-wage but high-skilled Indians and Chinese—and we’re still piling up debt.

He’s absolutely right, and he calls for a solution to America’s scoring “14th in reading skills, 17th in science and 25th in math” in the PISA rankings of the world’s industrialized nations’ educational attainment.

I am 27 years old, and thus have only recently left the bowels of the public education system to enter the working world. I am keenly aware of my peers and the trouble many of them seem to have in grasping any benefit from their education. I believe the problem stems from a lack of focus in the classroom. Here is my solution.

Allow only these materials into the classroom: textbooks, blackboard, chalk, pencils, erasers, notebooks, and materials for scientific experiment. As Dick Young would say, practice the KISS method: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The Clinton-era “computer in every classroom” schtick is ridiculous. Math has not changed very much in the past 50 years, nor has the English language, history (other than the newly generated), or basic grade school science. What has changed is the number of distractions in classrooms—overhead projectors, computers, distance learning, televisions, movies, and enough social workers to sink a battleship.

In 2000 I travelled to China as part of an exchange program. During my stay I visited Nanjing Middle School #29, the school of my Chinese counterpart, Wang Peng. During lectures, his class was seated, still, and paying attention to the teacher in the front of the room, who taught with a board and a book, nothing else. Peng was expected to know his materials, and if he didn’t, that was his loss. Without a proper education, the Chinese are simply left to pick up a job that is unskilled, not moved along the ranks through school because they are “entitled” to a good education. (Remind me again: Which is the capitalist country and which is the communist?)

One other thing I noted on my trip to China was the vigorous, militaristic physical education classes that the students attended on a daily basis. Exercise was done at every grade level, and these were not “sports” like baseball where you sit or stand in one position for 65% of the time. These were aerobic exercises. (As a somewhat disturbing side note, high schoolers were wearing military fatigues, and I saw elementary students practicing what could only be described as throwing hand grenades. Though that’s all the topic of another post.)

I keep hearing that American students outperform their international peers in measures of creativity. They are somehow better at looking at odd circumstances and “thinking outside the box.” But the problem is that American students don’t even know how to build the box in the first place. Rote memorization is boring, but it is one of the essential components of learning. The absolutely horrific spelling ability of most Americans is exhibit number one of the dismal educational system we are stuck with today.

The reason college graduate unemployment rates haven’t skyrocketed like those of high-school graduates, is that for many, college is the first place in which basic education is applied. Many students show up to college without even the remedial skills needed to complete freshman-level coursework. I witnessed droves of my peers attend courses in college that taught junior-high-level mathematics and reading skills. These kids didn’t belong in college, much the same way many of their parents didn’t earn enough money to really qualify for a mortgage. The same “American Dream” principle that was applied to home ownership has been applied to receiving a college education. Americans wouldn’t depend so highly on a college education if their high-school education was worth a damn.

Here are some additional education solutions we should try. I am no “education professional,” but I think in this case that might give me more credibility, rather than less.

Solution 1) Implement year-round schooling. Kids forget a lot during summer break, so every year many weeks are wasted on reviewing concepts from the previous year. If kids need lots of time off in a year, spread it out.

Solution 2) Do more with less—as I wrote above, KISS. This might help end the practice of having parents send in school materials to be shared among the students. If schools weren’t buying computers for every classroom, they may be able to afford tissues for runny noses and toilet paper for the bathrooms.

Solution 3) Memorize. It’s essential, even if it is boring.

Solution 4) Do real exercise in PE class. Study after study shows that fit (not fat) kids learn better. That’s good for the nation’s health-care costs, competitiveness in the world, and military readiness.

Cross posted from Richardcyoung.com