Friedman: U.S. education system endangering global competitiveness
21 Oct 2009

Friedman: U.S. education system endangering global competitiveness

New York times columnist Tom Friedman speaks

21 Oct 2009

New York times columnist Tom Friedman speaks out:

A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn’t there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.

That is the key to understanding our full education challenge today. Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

Citing Dan Pink, Friedman continues to conclude that, to be competitive in a global marketplace, the U.S. needs to infuse its schools with “entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.” As we stated before, there are many obstacles for schools that wish to produce creatives. Most importantly:

  1. No Child Left Behind. NCLB is producing exactly the wrong products for the 21st Century, but is right on for the 1850’s through 1950. NCLB’s fractured memorization model opposes the creative, synthetic thinking required for new work and effective citizenship.
  2. Schools are merging with prisons. As soon as students enter schools, they lose many of their fundamental rights, including the right to free speech. Students who do not wish to conform to prison-like, automaton production must develop individual creativity to survive… often at a price.
  3. Inadequate teacher preparation, recruitment and retention. The U.S. public schools have always been lemmings, but are now failing to produce teachers who are savvy to the contemporary trends their students must learn and respond to in times of accelerating change. The other half of the picture is teacher-modeled creativity, something the public schools have never seriously attempted.
  4. Insufficient adoption of technology. The squeeze is on from both ends: Student-purchased technology is usually derided, suppressed, and sometimes confiscated. These tools are part of the technology spectrum kids know they will have to master. On the other end, technology in the schools is dated, the Internet is firewalled, and there isn’t enough equipment to go around.
  5. Focusing on information retention as opposed to new knowledge production. Disk-drive learning is for computers. Knowledge production and innovation are for humans. The first requires fast recall and low error rates from dumb systems; the second, driven by intelligent people, builds the economy and keeps America competitive.
  6. Innovation is eschewed. Most U.S. teachers think innovation is something that requires them to suffer the discomforts and pains of adaptation. They don’t accept change as a necessary function of expanding national competitiveness. Many U.S. teachers might be more comfortable in industrial world economies and societies represented by China and South Korea, or 1950’s America.
  7. Continuous reorganization of school leadership and priorities, particularly in urban schools. Serious questions can be raised whether schools are the organizations required to cope with semi-permanent underclasses, violent youth, incompetent, irresponsible parenting and negative adult role models. What institutional substitutions would you make for the schools?
  8. National education priorities are built on an idealized past, not on emergent and designed futures. Blends of applied imagination, creativity, and innovation are required to visualize preferred futures, to render them proximal and grounded, and to forge them into empirical realities. On the other hand, it is quite possible that Secretary Spellings and other highly placed education “leaders” have never had an original thought in their entire lives.
  9. Social class and cultural problems in schools and communities suggest that the schools live in a Norman Rockwell past. Bright kids capable of novel thought and new culture creation have never fit into the industrially modeled American schools, and lower-middle class teachers have little respect for working- and poverty-class art, music, and culture. It appears that the schools are populated by timid, unimaginative, lower-middle class professional placeholders who crave convention (spelling bees, car washes, exceptional sports performances) over invention.
  10. Failing to invest resources in education, both financially and socially. Education is formal, informal, and non-formal in structure and function. It is possible that formal education will be recognized as the least powerful of this trio, in part because it is so dated, and in part because it occurs in such a small percentage of life compared with the other two types. Perhaps new funding algorithms and decisions must follow this ratio.

Where do we begin?

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  1. Skip Olsen October 21st, 2009 1:37PM

    Great post! I have concluded, after almost 40 years in schools, that we need to start by leaving. The current structure, not only physical, but mental as well, is incapable of being fixed. It looks much easier and more productive to get out, leave the old, dead ideas, and start anew. Read the history of education reform and it reads like the history of Afghanistan–there is no way to be successful–it is too broken. We’ve spent more than enough time thinking about how to change education, but we never decided whether to change. I’m tired of it all. I think it was Deming who said that survival is not mandatory and apparently many of our friends and neighbors would rather watch mindless television than think about the hard questions in our future.

    Skip Olsen

  2. Dick Schutz October 22nd, 2009 6:56AM

    Where do we begin? Question asked but not answered.

    Skip says, “Start anew.” Nice work if you can get it.

    Want implementable el-hi re-form plans? Try:

    “A Game Plan for Dramatically Improving the Productivity of the El-Hi Schooling Enterprise”

    “Remodeling Schooling: A New Architecture for Preschool to Precollege Instruction”

    “Educational Intelligence: Bringing Schools into the 21st Century”


    If there are better ways to go about it, so say.

  3. NewsView November 12th, 2009 8:09PM

    An educational theory I recall from college held that children would learn more about the world if their formal education did not commence until about age 12. The idea was that by forming their own impressions and interactions with the world they would bring their own unique neurology, talent and connections to the table. Instead we like to start young with the idea that they are better suited as “blank slates”.

    As contrary as that old educational theory sounds, it wasn’t uncommon for early Americans to come to the US with trade skills rather than academic credentials. Many children in early immigrant enclaves failed to finish school because they were expected to work on farms, factories and to run businesses to keep their families fed and clothed. Yet these same unoriginal Americans built us into a great nation. They may not have been particularly creative but they made up for what they lacked in academic chops in a hard work ethic.

    Similarly, China and India are becoming great nations because they are industrializing, and that alone creates jobs. Societies on the Industrial upswing don’t need to produce Einsteins; they only need to be PRODUCTIVE. Productiveness in any capacity grows an economy and raises standards of living in the long run. We here in the US outsourced our real economy, however, and now we have the likes of Friedman crying crocodile tears about the plight of education — an alarmist argument that just so happens to be decades old, perhaps even as old as America itself!

    Ironically, that perfectly entrepreneurial education at Ivy League schools is what persuaded the financiers on Wall Street to produce their glorified financial “innovations” by which to sell Main Street up the river! They pumped and dumped an entire economy, pocketed the fire sale profits, and yet Friedman argues that we lack for smart and innovative people? The bailout recipients ARE the innovators and it’s plain as day that their “innovating” had nothing whatsoever to do with ethics, morality or patriotism toward one’s country and fellow American. If ethics had been part of the creative equation it would be a win-win game instead of a zero-sum quackery of a free market.

    Bearing the above in mind, there are two bottom lines that matter even more than success-oriented personality traits and/or whether or not we have the “correct” form of education:

    1. Campaign Finance: Politicians who are tempted by lobbying, consulting, share holder and board member offers are often “bought” through the campaign donation process wherein large well-funded groups are deemed individuals with First Amendment Rights under the law. When large aggregates are permitted to speak as one whereas the voters are largely unrepresented, to whom does a career politician owe his or her re-election — or more telling, his or her job after leaving office?

    Remember: Deregulation of the energy market preceded the collapse of WorldCom and Enron, and the incremental deregulation of the financial markets during Republican and Democratic administrations alike revived conflicts of interest within our banking system that our battered and bruised legislatures during the Great Depression worked to prevent so that such times would not befall upon us again (or at least not for the same set of corrupt reasons). If education has failed, it is in the sense that we voters are too lazy or too overworked or too trusting to check up on the people we vote into office and whether or not they are serving OUR bottom lines.

    2. Familial breakdown: Teachers can’t work miracles out of children who live in fragmented, exhausted, overworked homes. American parents are working two and three jobs or the equivalent in hours-per-week. The average American now works 15-25 hours more per week than workers did in the 1960s, and we take far less vacation time than most of Europe and even Japan! Yet we’re supposed to sit here and engage in the sport of bashing ourselves because, well, we are LAZY? That’s the LAST thing we Americans are. Enough with self loathing!

    Reality: When there’s no adult at home to help with the homework, to see that a child eats at least ONE nutritious meal instead of all the crappy stuff that is creating the diabetes, cancer and obesity epidemics; and when there is no “values” or respect for adults outside of that parental authority figure, what do we expect them to do in school? Morph into more than the sum of their painfully limited parts? Children need to have more than entertainment to keep them out of their exhausted parents’ hair: Their FIRST exposure to the aspects of living in society ought to come from their extended family, including culture, arts, and even that thing that is so politically correct to forget: faith tradition. Instead we have spiteful attitudes toward the value of a “moral code of conduct” as might be learned through church, and we have adults going around parroting such disrespect such as “Those who can’t do teach”. Again, what do we expect of children who are absorbing what the un-conscientious adults in their life seem to value (or rather NOT value)? As many recall, growing up in the 1950s-’70s offered one form of electric babysitting: The boob tube. If you wanted something else to do you HAD to get creative. What is more creative than play time (the unstructured type)? Today we have multiple e-babysitters (creativity killers): Kids are well suited to the skills required to interact with Playstation but not in more abstract environments necessary to eventually becoming those “untouchable” innovators and entrepreneurs. There is STILL only 24 hours in a day: Parents can’t shovel all that electronic entertainment time into a kid’s brain without it edging something else out: Dinner around the table with a parent who actually ASKS how their school day went, training in faith values that might otherwise encourage a kid to think that there’s a meaning to their own existence beyond me-myself-and-I-and-the-mighty-dollar. Amazingly enough, if parents were to have time to parent their own kids, perhaps we have engaged, hardworking, honest, ethical member of society both in the classroom and the workforce! A functioning society and a equitable economy doesn’t start with the teachers, it begins in the home, which is where the future Wall Street tycoons learn their values!


    Friedman trumps education before parenting and innovation before campaign finance reform. Using Friedmans own scapegoats, however, one can conclude that HE is the one who should head back to school and learn to think critically before advancing a backwards argument. Putting the cart in front of the proverbial horse and expecting it to lead the way into this Brave New World never solved anything in the horse-and-buggy era, and it is even more wishful and outmoded now. Education today must be messed up: It produced Friedman and his nonsensical logic!


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