MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIII No. 3
January / February 2011
Clarifying MIT's International Agenda
MIT's Approach to International Engagement
MIT's Sputnik Moment
Student Engagement at MIT: A Path Forward
Education: America's Achilles Heel
Faculty and Student Diversity at MIT:
Facts and Figures
MIT Professional Education Short Programs: Linking Academia and Industry
Sanyl, Schuh, Verghese, and Winston Named 2011 MacVicar Faculty Fellows
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Campus International Sponsored Research
Printable Version

Education: America's Achilles Heel

Ernst G. Frankel

In recent days, a lot has been said about the need to improve American Education, yet few specifics are ever mentioned. There is an urgent need to improve primary and secondary education, in terms of quality, accessibility, and focus.

It is not by chance that we have fallen so far behind education levels, as measured by standardized tests, in many other countries, including many poorer, developing nations. We have the problem of unequal access to and funding of education, largely as a result of school funding and control at the local level. Such significant local control virtually automatically assures that students in poor neighborhoods get lower quality teachers, facilities, and educational support.

The so-called No Child Left Behind program – which I call the Most Children Left Behind program – never achieved any real improvements in primary education, and failed to provide funding to offset local inequalities. The shallow standardized tests used to measure performance, the lack of meaningful incentives for teachers, the dearth of greater involvement by parents as well as greater support for poor neighborhood children with after-school assistance such as properly supervised homework as well as other activities and facilities, are all major reasons for the failure of our schools.

Still, there is an even more invasive problem in tertiary education in America. We encourage a larger percentage of high school graduates to continue with tertiary education (what we call college) than any other country in the world. According to The Economist World Statistics, over 84% of U.S. high school graduates continue with tertiary education, mostly by attending some college, which in most cases amounts to nothing more than them spending another three-four years in a remedial high school – as most attend liberal arts colleges or programs that are not directed toward a career. The results not only affect our educational system, but also America’s economy. Unpaid or uncollectible student loans now account for hundreds of billions of dollars and the total loss of uncollectible loans will soon equal the financial losses imposed by the Subprime Mortgage crises.

But there are broader implications. In addition to the potential loss in student loans there is the loss of working life and output by so many young Americans. The average working life of Americans starts 2-4 years later then in any other developed country. This not only means a loss of lifetime earnings of 8-10 %, but also loss of similar contributions to Social Security, Health Care, and other programs. For many years we were told that America is succeeding because it converted successfully into a service economy, and that for our economy to succeed we must maintain a high level of consumption, even if we have to borrow the money to pay for it. These misplaced policies are, in my opinion, a major reason for our economic troubles. We have to become a more productive and efficient society, which lives within its means, and educates its young for the jobs that are needed to be done.

I believe we will only be able to get out of this morass if we not only improve our primary and secondary education, but also assure that tertiary education is focused on the skills needed. The issue has grown significantly in recent years with the emergence of for-profit colleges, many of which offer programs that are neither recognized nor lead to a proper professional career.

Their admission standards are often lax, and their marketing pervasive. Yet most of their graduates not only waste three to four years of their life and huge amounts of money, but also the opportunity to begin building a real career. Simple calculations show that if we had systems such as in Japan or Germany, where college is only accessible by a qualified few, well-prepared and focused students – while the rest undertake short 6-12 month trade or professional skill training usually organized and/or supervised by potential employers – we would have the skilled workforce needed by U.S. manufacturing and other firms. These firms are increasingly forced to outsource their work, not because of lower labor costs, but because of lack of adequate availability of well-trained and committed American workers.

If we would restructure our education system to focus on the needs of the American economy, and assure that only people who need and are qualified to undertake tertiary college education (with both programs and admission to these programs based on planned developments in our economy) we could not only increase our economic output significantly, but also improve the fiscal viability of Social Security, Health Care, and other entitlement programs. This education refocus, combined with a more rational consumption and tax strategy, could readily not only get us out of our current financial and economic mess, but also assure a brighter future for our country.

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