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27th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 27, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Schools Chancellor Klein is out in California today, participating in a debate over whether there is an economic crisis in education, a key event in the first annual Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Economic Summit. 

    Mr. Klein would be well advised to watch his back. Why? Because the man who is my personal choice to replace him as chancellor will be speaking at this event as well. 
    Who is this heavy hitter who would send Mr. Klein packing faster than you can say “buy out Diana Lam’s contract?” It is, of course, the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, who will deliver the keynote speech today. 

    No one could deny Mr. Greenspan’s power to move a system. His ability to influence the direction of the entire nation’s economy is so great that if he appears at a congressional hearing and scratches his nose side to side instead of up and down, the Dow Jones Industrial Average could instantly drop 100 points. 
    Mr. Greenspan did appear at a Senate hearing a week or so ago and was scratching his nose madly over the problems with our nation’s educational system. Unfortunately, there is no educational index equivalent to the Dow where the warning bells would be wildly clanging. The event got little coverage, but I (and a few others) heard what he had to say, and it only confirms what I have come to believe about the deficiencies in our school systems, particularly when it comes to the teaching of math. 

    Unfortunately, the concerns that he raised, the same concerns repeatedly raised by hundreds of the nation’s top mathematicians, are the exact same ones ignored by Mr. Klein. That’s why the prospect of Mr. Greenspan taking over Tweed is so attractive. 

    Mr. Greenspan was commenting on the growing concerns with the outsourcing of white-collar jobs to India and elsewhere. It is his contention that this issue is not as simple as presented in the press and by presidential want-to-bes. 

    He seems to believe that the education systems in some of the countries to which these jobs flow are superior to ours, increasing the supply of technical workers, thus driving down their cost. At the same time, we are not producing enough qualified workers here, driving up the cost at home.This gap encourages the outsourcing. 

    Mr. Greenspan points his finger directly at the schools. “There have been very disturbing international studies that [show] American students in math and science in the fourth grade are average, maybe even slightly better than average internationally. By the time they get to the 12th grade, they are way down below the average.” The reason? 

    According to Mr. Greenspan, “We do something wrong, which, obviously, people in Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan do far better than we. It’s nothing wrong with our students. Obviously, they are just as good if not better in the fourth grade. Teaching in these strange, exotic places seems, for some reason, to be far better than we can do it.” 

    Writing about the Greenspan testimony for, of all places, Bloomberg News, Andy Mukherjee delves a bit deeper into his remarks. Mr. Mukherjee asked an educator with one foot firmly planted here and the other in India exactly how the American education system is different from that of his native land. 

    “Sumit Gupta is a post-doctoral researcher in computer science at the University of California, Irvine. Mr. Gupta has studied in both India and the U.S., and has taught undergraduate classes in the U.S. ‘The American education system,’ Gupta notes, ‘is designed so as not to hurt the self-esteem of any student in class. So, nearly everyone can pass the highschool level.’ This leads to inadequately trained high-school graduates, and has a bearing on the quality of college education.” 

    To this, Mr. Gupta adds a caveat, typical of criticisms of the education systems in many Asian countries, where students must pass critical make-or-break examinations in order to secure their place at a university. He charges that the Indian system “completely ignores students’ feelings, opinions, and ambitions.” Mr. Gupta observes that this can easily break their spirit. 

    It seems to me that our system found a happy middle ground in the post–World War II era through the 1970s. The American curriculum was rigorous, particularly so in the years after the Sputnik scare energized American educators. That, combined with the fact that American college admissions are typically based on many criteria (even the Scholastic Aptitude Tests permit multiple tries for students not faring well the first time out) generated the best-prepared, most creative technical talent to be found anywhere. 

    In the past quarter-century, we have replaced this rigor with misplaced concern for the “self esteem” of the student, the results of which is what is of concern to Mr. Greenspan today. 

    “What will ultimately determine the standard of living of this country is the skill of the people,” Mr. Greenspan stated to the Senate Finance Committee. This is the same advice that a group of New York’s most respected mathematics professors gave Mr. Klein just over a year ago. Mr. Klein didn’t listen, preferring instead to take his advice on the teaching of math from proponents of “fuzzy” math such as Lucy West, since promoted to a deputy regional instructional superintendent position. 

    While all of the math professors hold doctorates in their field, Ms. West has no degree in mathematics. She received her B.A. in theater arts from Empire State College in 1984 and holds an M.A. in education from Bank Street College. 

    I suspect that Mr. Greenspan would give more credence to the math professors than the theater major. 
    Earlier this week, the Fed chairman started talking about lowering Social Security benefits, an idea considered the “third rail” of American politics. So it is not too far-fetched that he might be open to a change in employment in the not-too-distant future. Mr. Klein, watch out. Chancellor Greenspan? Sounds good to me.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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