While the current recession consumes the lion's share of intellectual energy on the part of politicians, industry leaders,
and academics, it may also obscure a larger, more systemic problem. The state of US education has fallen so far behind other
industrialized nations that it now threatens to alter our way of life. And it's unacceptable if we want to remain a world
leader in industry and innovation.
Sander A. Flaum
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 Problems
The 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
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
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
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