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Building an education nation

Posted Sept. 25, 2011, at 6:34 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 26, 2011, at 5:55 a.m.

Think of American education as a house of many rooms, each with a distinct function but taken as a whole, this house is shelter against the winds of change buffeting the world and threatening our future.

Any objective analysis of that shelter comes to the same conclusion: we have work to do to be sure we’re secure and able to hold our own against whatever this new global climate sends our way.

That’s the unsettling news. The good news? Work is under way, from the most remote school districts in rural America, to the inner city of our largest urban areas.

Standards and expectations are being raised and tested; new teaching techniques are being systematically measured and implemented; new kinds of schools are being constructed and politicians from the White House to the village green are being held accountable for their commitment to education.

For too long in our country, education was a one-size-fits-all model and the place of education in the public arena was more symbolic than real. Candidates regularly proclaimed, “I am running on a platform of pro-education. I’ll be the best friend the schools ever had.” Campaign intentions quickly gave way to the same old, same old.

Then, two dramatic developments set off alarms everywhere. Colleges and companies began to complain that too many high school graduates, not drop outs but graduates, were arriving on their doorstep functionally illiterate and unable to do the simplest form of math.

The other development? Our Asian competitors were racing to the top not only of the economic ladder but also the education ladder. They were making massive investments in education, unencumbered by outmoded structures, political food fights and “I give up” mentality.

Two examples: China requires all junior high students to take courses in biology, chemistry and physics, rightly figuring that science will be the coin of the 21st century. In America, only 18 percent of senior high school students take those courses.

As long ago as 1996 I was working in Seoul, South Korea, anchoring “Nightly News” before dawn because of the time difference. I was on a roof-top overlooking a junior high courtyard. At first light every morning the yard was filled with students reading by flashlight, waiting for the doors to open in another hour.

I could not imagine a similar scene in my country.

Recently President Obama asked the president of South Korea what the issues were with education that he had to confront and the South Korean leader replied, “Parents demanding more classroom time for their children.” That is not to say there isn’t impressive work underway in the public schools of America.

Innovative administrators and teachers have designed imaginative curricula and motivational techniques to keep students in the classrooms, and engaged in learning, often with little help from the outside.

Yes, there have been problems with the structure and constraints of teachers’ unions but those are now on the table and being negotiated. The battle is not over, but at least it has been joined.

Wendy Kopp’s innovative idea, Teach For America, is attracting a new generation of energetic and bright young men and women to the profession.

Entrepreneurs and captains of industry such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, home building tycoon Eli Broad, hedge fund billionaires in New York’s Robin Hood Foundation, have put education reform and excellence at the top of their personal and financial agenda.

NBC News has established an ongoing project called Education Nation to keep the issue before the American public. Other journalistic organizations have devoted special coverage to the subject on a regular basis.

This is a crusade in which we can all take part. Members of my generation, who owe so much to this country, should be a ready army of volunteer tutors and teacher aides in their communities.

Education used to be about Reading, Riting and Rithmetic. No more. Now it is about Recognition of the problem, Reform of the institution and Resolve to do what it takes to place American students of every socioeconomic class in the top tier of their peers everywhere.

Tom Brokaw is a former anchor of NBC News.

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