MYERS: Cure the education death spiral

December 25, 2010

Woodrow MyersWe Hoosiers have a lot for which we should be thankful. We are hospitable, we love really fast cars, we grow great corn and beans and hogs, and we know basketball (and football) better than most.

However, as we move deeper into the second decade of the new century, we must face the reality of our failure to keep our kids at the front of the competition, especially in math and science. And our Indiana General Assembly has a major challenge in 2011—fixing and funding our schools.

Recent studies show American eighth-graders have fallen behind Chinese Taipei, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan in mathematics, and our performance over the years is getting worse, not better. In science, only 10 percent of our eighth-graders reach advanced benchmarks while in Chinese Taipei, it’s almost double that (19 percent) and in Singapore it is more than triple (36 percent) the U.S. statistic.

The Indiana Statewide Testing for Education Progress-Plus 2010 assessment resulted in statewide pass rates of only 76 percent in mathematics and 67 percent in science. That puts Indiana children even further behind children in many Asian countries.

Our four-year high school graduation rates are less than 50 percent (and the only acceptable rate is 100 percent, so let’s not argue if it is really 40 percent or 60 percent).

So then, we ask why our skilled, professional jobs requiring math and science expertise are moving overseas along with our manufacturing jobs, especially to Asia. The answer: because companies want the best talent they can find at the best price they can get, and far too often Indiana is not on their list. To add more of a challenge, highly successful students from other countries are increasingly finding graduate education slots in America’s best universities, filling seats American students used to fill.

Of course there are exceptions, and of course there are examples of progress and/or improvement. But the simple, undeniable truth remains: We are not creating the talent we need to compete globally and in Indiana we are losing, not gaining, ground.

While it is important we improve educational opportunities for those who are disadvantaged, that should not preclude us from developing many more opportunities for our best students in math and science (whether or not they can catch a bullet pass or nail three-point shots). Why not more statewide math and science “tournaments” where our best and brightest get to show us the returns on our investment? Why don’t we reward our best teachers like we do our best coaches?

I have been fortunate to have traveled the world and I’ve seen kids who will walk for kilometers, often without breakfast, to attend school. Yet, here in Indiana, often with breakfast provided, we have not created the right incentives and imposed effective disincentives for school attendance and achievement.

Why not reward school administrators on graduation rates and on the success of their highest-achieving students? If the corner gas station gets a bonus for selling a winning lottery ticket, why not “bonus” the schools that produce the best students, especially from the toughest, most challenging environments?

Why don’t we provide better incentives for companies, which will ultimately benefit, to offer tutoring, internships and other support to schools and parents who accept the challenge to improve?

Why not link driving privileges to school attendance? It is within the power of our Legislature to do so.

Why not declare the education emergency we know exists in our state? It is not a public health disease epidemic that kills rapidly; rather, it is slow and insidious, and it has (and will) damage our state’s ability to compete for the best jobs and erode our standard of living.

Do we really want our fast cars and our farm combines (and yes, even our basketball goals) designed and made overseas? Our Legislature, our teachers, our school administrators and parents all share the blame. If we don’t work like heck to get it fixed fast, every Hoosier will pay the price.•


Myers is a former chief medical officer for WellPoint Inc. and served as health commissioner for Indiana and New York City. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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