During recent celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I could not help but think about the condition of the American education system as I listened to the alarming message from environmental experts about how “the world is in greater peril than ever” due to concerns about climate policy, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. In a similar way that environmental movement has been observing the extinction of wildlife species and other precious resources, we have been observing our status as the world leader in higher education with the highest proportion of students with a postsecondary degree become extinct.
In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Condition of Education 2008 Report, the United States ranked 10th among member countries in the percent of adults with a postsecondary degree from the traditional college-going age group. We only achieved a 39 percent postsecondary degree attainment rate, which makes us 16 percentage points beneath No. 1 ranked Canada (55 percent), while Japan and Korea have a 54 percent and 53 percent postsecondary degree attainment rate, ranking second and third, respectively, among OECD countries.
In many ways, we no longer command a lead on the planet in postsecondary degree attainment because our education system is “environmentally” sick. The collateral damage from the breakdown of our “education ecosystem” is evident in the number of underperforming schools and school closings. The United States is now ranked 23rd in high school completion rates. We have the highest college dropout rate of any industrialized nation.
Although the Obama administration has been anxiously seeking a cure to stimulate much needed vitality and sustainability in today’s education system, our education system is noxious from the hazardous waste left behind from one reform effort after another. In its ravaged state, like the scarred landscape of an over-timbered rainforest, it is no longer sustainable.
Books like Diane Ravitch’s recent volume, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, are a clarion bell about the present devastation of education and are not unlike Rachel Carson’s world-shattering 1962 book, Silent Spring. We must heed Ravitch’s alarms about the noxious effects of school choice and testing in No Child Left Behind as seriously as Carson’s warnings about the poisonous effects of chemical pesticides.
Ravitch states “much of what policymakers now demand will very likely make schools less effective and may further degrade the intellectual capacity of our citizenry.” Ultimately, we are ailing from “the lack of sound educational values,” according to Ravitch.
Perhaps our education reform effort could take a few notes from the values and strategies of the environmental movement. We must galvanize our national leaders, policymakers, and decision makers to make personal commitments to protect our education ecosystem with the same fervor that has emerged around saving our planet ecologically, i.e., recycling, reusable grocery bags and composting, etc. If we do not begin to engage practices that produce renewable education energy, our children will suffer the greatest pollution of their opportunities for success in environmentally unjust classrooms.
Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith is the director of The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, which conducts and disseminates research and policy analysis to encourage policymakers, educators, and the public to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation, and disabled college students