The United States’ educational system has dropped us to precisely that status: average, even a tad below. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – a 50-year-old non-profit that fosters intergovernmental cooperation – from cross-border transparency and consistency in financial oversight and uniformly higher environmental regulations to mutual problem-solving and acceleration of healthy job and other economic growth – recently measured and ranked the quality of educational standards around the world under their Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). According to their Website, “The survey, based on two-hour tests of a half million students in more than 70 economies, also tested mathematics and science. The results for 65 economies [were released in July of 2010].” The OECD also measured the correlation between educational standards and economic growth… in hard dollars.
The “average scores” for math were 496, science 501 and overall reading 493; the United States placed 487, 502 and 500; countries like Korea, Finland, Poland, Estonia and cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore easily outscored us (and the usual suspects, from Japan, Switzerland, Canada, & Australia were there too among a longer list). A December 7th Google Report prepared by Karen Zeitvogel summarizes some of the relevant provisions vis-à-vis the United States: “The three-yearly OECD … PISA… report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics.
“In Canada, 15-year-olds are more than one school year ahead of their US peers in math and more than half a school year ahead in reading and science, said the report released hours after President Barack Obama urged Americans not to rein in education spending, even in a tough economy… The OECD report also noted that investment in education is paid back many times over… Boosting US scores for reading, math and science by 25 points over the next 20 years would result in a gain of 41 trillion dollars for the United States economy over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010, the OECD said.” Cough! Gasp! Choke?! $41 trillion dollars?!?! And states are slashing their educational budgets to meet current shortfalls?!
Yet we are mired under tons of deficit-driven debt, particularly spending on military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to be passing from “risky expeditions” right into colossal failed policies and lost credibility… and billions of misdirected dollars wasted into thin air. We are trillions of dollars below the necessary and already-committed funding levels to allow many government workers to retire early with cost of living escalators while the majority of non-governmental workers aren’t even sure they will ever be able to retire. A substantially unregulated financial sector created the bubble “borrow as much as you can” mentality that crashed the global economy, a debt-driven mentality that shoves accountability for unwise spending commitments into those “let the elected officials of the future deal with that problem” zone… except the future is now, and the piper is waiting to be paid.
Where are our priorities? Are we remotely better off as a people than we were years ago? Jill Lawrence, writing for AOL’s January 23rd PoliticsDaily.com, observes: “The unemployment rate remains well above 9 percent, a record 6.3 percent of people are living in "deep poverty," health insurance premiums doubled from 1999 to 2009, and a record 1.2 million families are expected to lose their homes to foreclosure this year. Net worth has plummeted, particularly for minorities, driven in large part by the housing bust. The wealthiest now have assets a record 225 times greater than the median family net worth… Wages, meanwhile, have stagnated for decades. The Economic Policy Institute drives the point home with numbers: Average increase in income for households in the bottom fifth of the income scale, $200 from 1979 to 2005. Average increase over the same period for those in the top .1 percent, $6 million.”
In the end, we have stop spending money on campaigns that have no real benefit – in national security, environmental or economic terms – to real flesh-and-blood Americans. We cannot prioritize the rich over the poor, the corporate over the individual or vice versa… but we must prioritize where we spend tax dollars and incur deficits. Make the list in your own head (and link each expenditure to a tangible “quality of life” result for America as a whole, maybe even humanity as a whole)… and cut off the bottom third of your “ask.” We must make hard choices… now. Mr. President, the Union is indeed in a state…. And it really is about priorities.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I stubbornly believe we can do it, but we have to try… and accept a rocky and difficult longer-term journey.