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A Culture of Incompetence

You’ve heard it before. The test scores and skill level of U.S. students today is abysmal. Results of a global education survey in December 2010 show U.S. high school students come in 26th out of 65 places worldwide in combined scores for math, science and reading tests. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and development (OECD) Program for International Assessment (PISA) suggests that while America lags, Asia soars: Out of the top 10, eight are in the Asia-Pacific region -- led by Shanghai and Hong Kong in China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. The rise of education in Asia is no accident. It reflects deliberate policies and long-term investments that recognize the centrality of quality education to a nation's economic growth.

Does that mean if we throw more money at the problem the scores of U.S. students will rise? No. It goes a lot deeper than to say teachers are underpaid; classrooms are too full; funding is lagging. There is no question that recent cuts in education budgets in many states have led to a declining education experience. But the problem goes much deeper. It goes to the core of the value-system that now exists in the U.S. that has infected our school children. We have a value system that rewards outrageous behavior by focusing media attention (social/news) on it and knowingly or unknowingly encouraging young people to act out in the same way.

How else can we explain the attention paid to the likes of Charlie Sheen? Have you seen his new commercials about being under house arrest? What about You Tube videos that glamorize stupidity by giving those who post on it their 15 minutes of fame? Then there is reality TV that depicts incivility and we see it in politics all the time such as when a reporter interrupts the President before he can finish a statement.

Today’s high school kids would rather text and surf the Internet for entertainment than buckle down, study the books, and advance their intellect. The hard sciences and math are not valued for the discipline they teach as was the case years ago. Where will we get the leaders in these fields for the future growth and development of our country and will we ever be able to catch up with the Chinese? I don’t think so because the problem goes much deeper.

On June 20, 2012, a Gallup poll was released that shows confidence in America’s public schools has hit a record low, with only 29 percent of respondents expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in them. The number is down 5 percentage points from last year, and represents a 4 percent decrease from the previous low of 33 percent in 2007 and 2008.

It’s true that the declining confidence in America’s public school system follows a year of budget cuts across the country that have forced the elimination of jobs in the education sector, student transportation and after-school programs. Parents nationwide have also been vocal in expressing their frustration with excessive standardized testing and “teaching to the test.” Some place the blame on President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Program” for teaching to the test rather than developing the skills needed for success in the 21st century. But the problem goes much deeper.

A survey of business executives released on February 13, 2012 from medium and large companies across the country shows they believe a growing skills gap combined with drastic increase in college tuition and fees could have negative effects on the American economy. The survey Hiring and Higher Education was conducted by Public Agenda, a research organization focused on public engagement and national problem-solving, and the Committee for Economic Development, an organization of business leaders and university presidents, which focuses on addressing economic and social issues. The executives said education and the workforce is often the first response they give when asked about keeping the U.S. competitive and innovative, and they don’t feel comfortable with the state of either.

What it boils down to is the “mismatch” between what the system is producing and what the economy needs. While other countries produce more science, technology, engineering, and math graduates, the U.S. might be producing “too many liberal arts graduates.” All types of graduates in general lack the skills employers seek: character, interpersonal skills, motivation, and work ethic, and many come with a very undesirable quality: entitlement. Many are incapable of writing a coherent memo, of having a professional conversation, and of dressing appropriately for the workplace.

So, there we have it. Today’s youth do not want to put in the time and effort with their studies to develop the globally-competitive-skills needed to keep America the leader in innovation and advancement in technology and the sciences. The work ethic that made this country great for about 250 years no longer exists. The problem is one of character and immaturity fueled by social media, television, and the movies.

Can we turn things around before it is too late and we find ourselves lagging not only Asian economies but emerging ones such as in the former Soviet Union? I think that train has left the station. Our politicians seem to have no clue and continue to debate old solutions to continuing problems with our education system. The first step in recovery is to admit you have a problem and that hasn’t happened as yet. The discussion is at the margins and not with the core problem of the lack of a work ethic.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 25, 2012