Brave New World: Are our kids ready to compete in the new global economy? Maybe not
Last summer I saw the future, and it was unsettling.
My daughter, then 14, found herself a racial minority in a class of gifted kids in a three-week program at Northwestern University. Of the 16 or so kids, a dozen were Asian or Asian American.
The class wasn't computer science or engineering or chemistry -- classes increasingly populated by international students at the college level -- but a “soft” class, nonfiction writing.
When several hundred parents and students met that afternoon for the introductory remarks, I spotted more turbaned Sikhs in the auditorium than black people. I can't say if there were any Hispanics at all.
Earlier, I had met my daughter's roommate and her mom -- both thin, stylish and surgically connected to their cell phones and iPods. I casually assumed that the kid was a suburban princess, Chinese American division. Later, my daughter told me that her roommate was from Hong Kong, the daughter of a banker, and had at the age of 14 already taken enrichment classes in Europe and Canada. Oh, and she had been born in Australia.
Welcome to the 21st century.
In the coming decades, you can be sure the faces of power and influence won't be monochromatic white and solely American. Being multilingual will be a powerful advantage in the business world, familiarity and ease with other cultures will be a plus, and, above all, talent and drive will be the passwords of success in the global economy.
Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat, his chronicle of the rapid economic and social changes wrought by the mercury-like spread of new technology, serves as an essential primer for understanding this new world.
In a nutshell, we shouldn't bet on American hegemony in technology and economic growth in the 21st century. In a ramped-up, knowledge-based, digitalized economy, there are no borders. The built-in advantage the U.S. enjoyed after World War II -- our industrial based was untouched, while the rest of the developed world's was in ruins -- has finally run its course. Today, many tech jobs can just as easily be performed in Bangalore and Beijing as in Fitchburg.
Whether America's youth, raised in the lap of luxury with an overpowering sense of entitlement, will prosper in this meritocratic environment is an interesting question. And what of America's underprivileged youth, struggling in school and conspicuously short of family assets: How well will they fare in the new global marketplace?
My own a-ha! moment came a year ago at about the same time I dropped my youngest daughter off at Northwestern. Out of the blue I received an e-mail from a young man in India, offering his services to proofread the paper. Technically, it was no problem to ship him copy, and because of the 12-hour time difference he could work while the rest of us slept and played -- if we wanted to go down the outsourcing road.
Most of us have had those eerie moments when the distant winds of globalization suddenly blow across our desks here in comfortable Madison. For parents, it can lead to an unsettling question: Will my kids have the skills, temperament and knowledge to prosper in an exceedingly competitive world?
I'm not so sure.
I'm a fan of Madison's public schools, but I have my doubts if such preparation is high on the list of school district priorities. (I have no reason to think things are any better in the suburban schools.) Like a lot of parents, I want my kids pushed, prodded, inspired and challenged in school. Too often -- in the name of equity, or progressive education, or union protectionism, or just plain cheapness -- that isn't happening.
Instead, what we see in Madison is just the opposite: Advanced classes are choked off; one-size-fits-all classes (“heterogeneous class groupings”) are mandated for more and more students; the talented-and-gifted staff is slashed; outside groups promoting educational excellence are treated coolly if not with hostility; and arts programs are demeaned and orphaned. This is not Tom Friedman's recipe for student success in the 21st century.
Sure, many factors can be blamed for this declining state of affairs, notably the howlingly bad way in which K-12 education is financed in Wisconsin. But much of the problem also derives from the district's own efforts to deal with “the achievement gap.”
That gap is the euphemism used for the uncomfortable fact that, as a group, white students perform better academically than do black and Hispanic students. More to the point, mandating heterogeneous class grouping becomes a convenient cover for reducing the number of advanced classes that fail the PC test: too white and unrepresentative of the district's minority demographics.
The problem is that heterogeneous classes are based on the questionable assumption that kids with a wide range of skills -- from high-schoolers reading at a fourth-grade level to future National Merit students -- can be successfully taught in the same sophomore classroom.
“It can be done effectively, but the research so far suggests that it usually doesn't work,” says Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, head of Northwestern's Center for Talent Development, which runs an enrichment program for Evanston's schools.
I have to ask: After failing to improve the skills of so many black and Hispanic kids, is the Madison district now prepared to jeopardize the education of its most academically promising kids as well?
Please don't let me be misunderstood. Madison schools are making progress in reducing the achievement gap. The district does offer alternatives for its brightest students, including college-level Advanced Placement classes. There are scores of educators dedicated to improving both groups of students. But it's also clear which way the wind blows from the district headquarters: Embrace heterogeneous classrooms. Reject tracking of brighter kids. Suppress dissent in the ranks.
The district's wrongheaded approach does the most damage in the elementary-school years. That's where the schools embrace dubious math and reading pedagogy and shun innovative programs, like those operated by the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth, a nonprofit group that works tirelessly to promote gifted education. (Credit school board president Johnny Winston Jr. for cracking the door open to WCATY.)
In a perfect world, Madison would learn from Evanston's schools and their relationship with WCATY's peer, the Center for Talent Development. Faced with predominantly white faces in its advanced high school classes, this racially mixed district didn't dump those classes but hired Olszewski-Kubilius' group to run an after-school and weekend math and science enrichment program for promising minority students in grades 3-6.
In other words, raise their performance so they qualify for those advanced classes once they get to high school. Now there's an idea that Tom Friedman would like!
MARC EISEN IS EDITOR OF ISTHMUS.Email: EISEN at ISTHMUS.COM
quickly take a hard, substantive look at what's required to provide a world class curriculum for our next generation. There are many parents concerned about this issue.