Saturday, May 9, 2009

When you are being chased by a bear...

When I look at the nationwide education scene, I often get reminded of this old joke:

Two buddies were hiking bare feet on a hiking trail, when a huge bear spotted them and started running towards them.

One of the buddies quickly grabbed his backpack, took his sneakers out and started putting them on.

The other one, now panicking, was puzzled. He said "Are you crazy? You can't outrun the bear in those sneakers!"

The first one replied "I don't HAVE to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU!"

Unlike many developed or developing countries, the US has a decentralized education system. Almost all decisions were made at a local level at one time, until the state governments started funding schools. That has led to some interesting developments. Some states have realized, like the smart one in the story, that they just have to outrun the rest of the states in education in order to attract new businesses and promote economic growth. In these tough economic times, that rings true more than ever. Here are just a few examples of what different states have done, or are in the process of doing.

* Massachusetts, Indiana and California were some of the early pioneers in toughening up their math standards so that everyone gets college ready by graduation. They have realized that just because there are jobs for high school dropouts today, they will soon vanish. The future belongs to those who have the fundamentals in reading, writing, and math honed enough to switch to another field mid career. Career changes will be a necessity, not a luxury according to experts. So, let's say in 2020, when RoboX corporation wants to convert the old GM assembly plant in Fremont and build robots instead, they will be looking for technicians and programmers, not a high school dropout who puts bolts on nuts.

* Texas has made four years of Math and Science mandatory for all their high school graduates. When one thinks of high tech, Texas is unlikely to pop first into anyone's head, but I think they too realize that the days of big oil are limited, and the future belongs to those who understand technology. This makes their economy virtually future proof, because their graduates will most likely be CREATING the future we will all live in.

* Massachusetts and Minnesota have now asked to be separated out of the national pack in the TIMSS international study, which measures achievement in Math and Science over several grades. In the latest study, Massachusetts came in favorably compared to the top achieving nations in the world, such as Hong Kong and Finland. This pretty much validated their decision to set very high standards for all their students.

* New Hampshire, the tiny state which goes back into hibernation after the presidential primaries, has eliminated the 11th and 12th grades from their schools. Instead, the students go directly into community colleges, either to learn a trade or as freshmen in a 2 or 4 year college track. This has pretty much compressed what is taught in 12 years in 13 years of a typical K-12 curriculum into 11 years. Given that most curricula used in schools these days are thoroughly unchallenging even for an average student, this move is a bold but sensible one.

When I look at these examples, I pity the rest of the states that are scrambling to catch up. Many other states are now scrambling to catch up, and there is even talk of national standards. However, in my opinion, these attempts are only one small part of what is needed to compete. Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan have been very eloquent in their support of education reform. However, they do not have direct control over what happens in schools. Each state, each district, each school, and each classroom has challenges that will need to be identified and worked out. In my home state of Washington, when I look at what is being done, it is clear to me that we will lag the rest of the states by a long shot. The big bear of international economic competition is merciless and relentless. Even when the US economy recovers, it appears that other states will have a jump on it before us, in terms of a well trained workforce.

Something better get done quickly before the kids in Washington state become (economic) bear fodder.