U.S.G. and P.T.A. -- By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The New York Times
For me, the most frightening news in The Times on Sunday was not about North Korea’s stepping up its nuclear program, but an article about how American kids are stepping up their use of digital devices: “Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying. But this proficiency comes at a cost: She blames multitasking for the three B’s on her recent progress report. “I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.’ ”
I don’t want to pick on Miller. I highlight her words only because they’re integral to a much larger point: Our unemployment today is not only because of the financial crisis. There are some deeper problems. If we’re going to get more Americans back to work, we will need more stimulus from the U.S.G. — the U.S. government — from the top down. But we will also need more stimulus from the P.T.A.’s — the Parent Teacher Associations — from the bottom up.
The deeper problems fostering unemployment in America today can be summarized in three paragraphs:
Global competition is stiffer. Just think about two of our most elite colleges. When Harvard and Yale were all male, applicants had to compete only against a pool of white males to get in. But when Harvard and Yale admitted women and more minorities, white males had to step up their game. But when the cold war ended, globalization took hold. As Harvard and Yale started to admit more Chinese, Indians, Singaporeans, Poles and Vietnamese, both American men and women had to step up their games to get in. And as the education systems of China, India, Singapore, Poland and Vietnam continue to improve, and more of their cream rises to the top and more of their young people apply to Ivy League schools, it is only going to get more competitive for American men and women at every school.
Then, just as the world was getting flattened by globalization, technology went on a rampage — destroying more low-end jobs and creating more high-end jobs faster than ever. What computers, hand-held devices, wireless technology and robots do in aggregate is empower better-educated and higher-skilled workers to be more productive — so they can raise their incomes — while eliminating many lower-skilled service and factory jobs altogether. Now the best-educated workers, capable of doing the critical thinking that machines can’t do, get richer while the least-educated get pink slips. (We used to have a receptionist at our office. She was replaced by a micro-chip. We got voice mail.)
Finally, just when globalization and technology were making the value of higher education greater than ever, and the price for lacking it more punishing than ever, America started slipping behind its peers in high school graduation rates, college graduation and global test scores in math and critical thinking.
As Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it to me in an interview, 50 years ago if you dropped out, you could get a job in the stockyards or steel mill and still “own your own home and support your family.” Today, there are no such good jobs for high school dropouts. “They’re gone,” said Duncan. “That’s what we haven’t adjusted to.” When kids drop out today, “they’re condemned to poverty and social failure.”
There are barely any jobs left for someone with only a high school diploma, and that’s only valuable today if it has truly prepared you to go on to higher education without remediation — the only ticket to a decent job.
Beyond the recession, this triple whammy is one of the main reasons that middle-class wages have been stagnating. To overcome that, we need to enlist both the U.S.G. and the P.T.A. We need teachers and principals who are paid better for better performance, but also valued for their long hours and dedication to students and learning. We need better parents ready to hold their kids to higher standards of academic achievement. We need better students who come to school ready to learn, not to text. And to support all of this, we need an all-society effort — from the White House to the classroom to the living room — to nurture a culture of achievement and excellence.
If you want to know who’s doing the parenting part right, start with immigrants, who know that learning is the way up. Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced — America’s top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.
Do you see a pattern?