According to a report released this year by McKinsey Consulting, the American economy has already begun to feel the effects of an undereducated workforce. From 1983 to 1998, the achievement gap between the US and countries like Finland and South Korea created a disparity in productivity that has shaved $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion off the US gross domestic product. As that gap widens, we can expect to lose even more wealth relative to the rest of the world.
Identifying the ProblemsThe McKinsey report cites the results of a worldwide exam called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the practical education and problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds throughout the 30-country Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2006, the US ranked 25th in math and 24th in science on the PISA program.
How did the richest country in the world squander its resources to become a bottom-dweller in education? There are two main causes. First, we allowed our public education systems to grow fat and ineffective. Union regulations and funding inequalities have created a system that populates the nation's poorest schools with faculties that refuse to improve their teaching methods.
It's not that we aren't spending on education; it's that we're spending badly. The report states that the US spends $165 per point on the PISA math test—that's more than any other country in the OECD, and 60 percent more than the average member country's outlay.
Second, over the last 10 years, as television, texting, and the Internet have become the dominant media, kids have lost the power of analytical thought. And it's easy to see why: In the 1950s, if children wanted to learn about the world, their best option was to pick up a newspaper or a magazine, in the process developing the reading comprehension and critical thinking skills crucial to success. Today's new media can be fantastic learning tools, but they tend to support passive, indiscriminate absorption of information.
A Labor Department study conducted during the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed that the unemployment rate of 28-year-old workers was inversely related to their math, science, and paragraph comprehension scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. In other words, students who scored in lower quartiles on this exam were more likely to be unemployed later in life.
Getting Back to Basics
So what can we do about it? The first step is to accept the limitations of our nation's school system. A national policy lifting barriers to charter schools and merit-based pay would go a long way toward fixing the problem. However, that solution won't sit well with the United Federation of Teachers, some of President Obama's most loyal supporters. We must look to parents, and we must hold them accountable for the education of their children.
I recently had breakfast with Jerry Hultin, President of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, many of whose students come from overseas (mostly Asia). He credited their success with the value placed on education at an early age.
Hultin said that American parents have to start sparking their children's interest in current events, English, and writing when they are in the fifth and sixth grades. He underscored that parents should make time daily to review their children's homework with them. The key point is to keep young minds actively engaged—be it on schoolwork or a homemade pop quiz on the swine flu.
The bottom line is that home intervention may be our best hope for grooming tomorrow's workforce for the challenges of taking the lead in the global marketplace once again.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners and chairman, Fordham Graduate School of Business, Leadership Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org