By Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
No one doubts that our education system is in very serious trouble. Too many students are not learning what we expect them to learn, and too many are dropping out before they get a high school degree — a catastrophe, given that more and more of our good-paying jobs are available only to college graduates.
"On virtually every international assessment of academic proficiency, American secondary school students' performance varies from mediocre to poor," according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. Recently, the United States ranked 15th of 29 countries in reading literacy, 21st in scientific literacy, 25th in mathematics literacy, and 24th in problem solving, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Only 70 percent of high school students in the United States earn a diploma.
It is easy to blame the schools for these failures, and to be honest, our schools bear some responsibility for what happens within their wall. But the schools are not the whole of it. Education cannot be looked at without paying attention to the context of how we treat our children. When almost 20 percent of our nation's children live in poverty, the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world; when millions of babies and young kids are cared for in inadequate childcare facilities by undertrained and underpaid staff; when young Americans watch upwards of 40 hours of television a week, much of it based on violence and selling useless products; when too many of our political leaders categorize intellectual and artistic pursuits as "elitism" and actually make fun of those who attend our best universities; when hundreds of thousands of young people are simply unable to afford higher education; we must understand that schools alone are not responsible for all of the problems of education in America.
Part of our educational failure results from distorted national priorities. While schools in Vermont and across this country are laying off language instructors and music teachers because of their dependence on the burdensome and regressive property tax, Congress passes a bloated $532 billion military budget with very little discussion. While thousands of schools throughout America lack after-school programs or enriched summer schools, President Bush has provided hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent.
What should we be doing about our troubled educational system? For a start, we can look at countries that are remarkably successful, like Finland. Finland comes out on top of almost all the international education benchmarks on which we do so badly. As a direct consequence of its strong education system, Finland has the most competitive economy in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. What do the Finns do? They provide high quality and free early childhood education and daycare, from age six months until their kids go to school, to every child in their country. They have small classes. They give fewer tests than we do, and those tests require complex thinking and problem solving — they are not just "fill in the box" multiple-choice exams. They understand that education is an investment in their economy, in their healthcare and in their environment, which is why they provide free college and graduate school to all eligible applicants.
What else can we do? We can fully fund federal programs for our public schools, which have been greatly underfunded since the Bush administration took office. We can also fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provides only 18 percent of special-ed costs, when 40 percent was what the federal government promised.
We also must go beyond today's mandates for testing and more testing. Too many schools are not teaching their students how to learn — they are teaching to the test, drilling and drilling and drilling. In reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we should get rid of these failed provisions and instead require programs that will make our schools the source of rich experiences for our children, and no longer prescribe sterile classrooms where nothing matters but the next examination.
Finally, we must once again make college affordable for American families. Too many students do not go to college — or even aspire to college — because the costs are too great. In the final analysis we must understand that education is the basis on which our future is formed. If we want a strong middle class, if we want young people gainfully employed in the workforce rather than rotting in jails, if we want a society where our citizens live in good health then we must accept the basic principle that education is not an expense but an investment in the future well-being of our nation.
This piece was published in The Hill with the title "Schools not solely responsible for ills".