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Will the American Dream become the American Memory?

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

When he spoke recently in Atlanta former New York City Public Schools chancellor Joel Klein suggested, “The question we are discussing right now is whether the American Dream becomes the American Memory on our watch.  That’s how serious I think this discussion is because the world is changing dramatically and our education system is not changing at all.”

Georgia changed just a little bit this week when voters approved a path to state authorization for proposed charter schools that were turned down by local school boards.  Washington state voters voted on charters, Indiana voters rejected their reformist state superintendent in favor of a union-backed candidate, unions were successfully able to roll back reforms in South Dakota and Idaho; and in California state sales taxes are going up by $6 billion to fund education gaps.

Those were some of the higher profile education highlights from this year’s state elections.  A few other issues appeared on statewide ballots but essentially, no one proposed to re-engineer any state public education system with radical ideas that would return U.S. students to the lofty position they once held as among the worlds’ best and brightest.  Today the World Economic Forum ranks U.S. students 48th in math and science education.

“Today just over seven-out-of-ten of our kids are graduating (from) high school so three-in-ten are not graduating,” Joel Klein said when he spoke to the Georgia Chamber conference. “The seven-out-of ten who graduate, half of them at least are not ready for college.  What’s their future going to look like in the 21st Century where a higher mode of thinking is going to be critical and where education is going to be so much more important?”

Joel Klein, Former Chancellor, New York City Public Schools

Klein comes to his education credentials through a less than traditional route.  Trained as a lawyer, his career began in non-profit and private sector practice before his appointment as a White House attorney under President Bill Clinton.  He moved to the U.S. Justice Department for several years before he was appointed New York schools chancellor in 2002.  Today he runs News Corporation’s education division where there is an emphasis on digital learning.

“Probably the most important lesson of all is this, for the first time in our history our younger generation is less well educated than its parents,” Klein told the Chamber conference.  “Only a minority (percentage) of American adults believe the standard of living for their children will be higher than what they have themselves enjoyed.  That is shocking.  Our 25-to-34 year old kids are not as well educated as our 54-to-65 year olds.  We’re moving backward.”

The remedies he proposed – “three big ideas” that he said a lot of people do not like – start with a massive expansion of school choice, a complete rethink about teacher professionalization and seriously adopting technology at more intense levels that what we already see today.  One of his main projects is the creation of highly optimized education tablet computers.

On school choice and competition: “Think about the changes you see in media, the changes in medicine.  We’re stuck in a very different model of delivery and that’s in part because it’s a government monopoly that basically says to people, you don’t get a choice in schools.”  In Georgia 180 school systems report to 180 boards of education.  In New York City the entire school board was eliminated and 32 city school districts report to the Mayor’s Office.

In Georgia this week voters approved state authorization of public charter schools.  In New Orleans five years ago Hurricane Katrina wiped out the entire school system.  Three-fourths of new schools are public charters; the academic proficiency of minority students has significantly improved against previous city school results and also against students statewide.

“New Orleans was a failed school system for generations,” Klein said.  “Now look what’s happening.” The proficiency of African-American city students was 11 percent below African-American students statewide before Katrina.  Now they have caught and passed state results.

On the teaching profession: “America’s teachers today feel disrespected and they are not America’s heroes,” Klein said.  He proposes to require that new teachers serve minimum one-year apprenticeships under master teachers before they are allowed to teach. “If we don’t make teachers the great American profession we will not succeed.  Unless we’re willing to dramatically change and move away from a system built on seniority we won’t succeed.”

On technology:  “Why do people drop out?  One reason they drop out is they feel lost in the sauce,” Klein said.  “They feel like they are not learning.” His push is for “socially addictive” learning in groups, more distance learning, the introduction of more highly optimized learning tablet computers and more corporate involvement in all sectors of teaching and learning.

“Real choice will be controversial,” Klein said.  “Transforming teaching from its current model to a true profession will take an enormous change.  We can’t micromanage our teachers into success.  Technology creates the greatest opportunity and the greatest hope for real transformation.  We have to do things differently.

“The countries that succeed in the 21st Century will be those countries that out-educate other countries.  When you see what is going on in the world you realize that other countries are not standing still while we try to get our act together.  I grew up a product of the American Dream.  I don’t want this Dream to get wiped out on our watch.”

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