Restoring Education Is Our Best Bet Against China

Photo by the CDC | Unsplash


The Wall Street Journal headline, “China Will Soon Lead the U.S. in Tech,” screamed that the United States is relinquishing our century-old economic domination in yet another key industry. According to the article, China will beat out the U.S. in foundational technologies such as 5G, wireless quantum information science, biotechnology, and artificial information technology (AI).


While we have heard such claims previously in the 1970s regarding Japan and its manufacturing prowess, observers have viewed this moment in the global economy as America’s Sputnik moment because China is doing its utmost to corner the global market on technological innovation.


China’s ambitions are not new. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been attempting to become a global economic hegemon for decades, and the U.S. has been able to fend off its drive for economic superiority with some mixed success. What is different now is how each nation’s education system is catching up to them. China and other countries clearly recognize that a country’s educational trajectory is related directly to its economic success. Tragically, the U.S. has allowed its focus on educational excellence to drift aimlessly for years, and this neglect has finally caught up with it.


Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, student achievement on the National Assessment of Progress (NAEP) – long considered the barometer of student achievement and progress – remained stagnant for years. President Biden has often referenced our lackluster performance in reading and mathematics. Currently, the COVID-19 virus and the emerging variants have further impacted school achievement and layered the problem with social, emotional, and behavioral issues.


With China on track to graduate twice as many Computer Technology, Engineering, Science and Mathematics Ph.D.’s, our leaders in our educational institutions need to ask questions and devise comprehensive solutions to bridge this gap.


Unfortunately, it seems that the only news surrounding education these days has to do with politics and competing narratives that ultimately do not serve our students. Seizing the current trend of parent activism in the schools, Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin proposed a ban on “critical race theory” and instituting Advanced Placement courses as part of every secondary school curriculum. Conversely, California suggested a redesign of the mathematics curriculum by eliminating homogeneous grouping, reducing standardized testing schedules, changing the criteria for special admission schools, and removing failing grades from report cards. Even Harvard University recommended suspending the SAT as a criterion for admission until 2026.


Simple, quick-fix solutions which generate tantalizing sound bites and whip targeted groups into a frenzy fall short of the research, planning, and inclusionary process required to solve complex problems. Too often these solutions are short-sighted and can result in unintended consequences that exacerbate educational divides.


The elimination of learning standards that determine subject-level proficiency is one such problem. Alternatively, “raising the bar” for all students and believing that all students are capable of learning higher-level skills isn’t a solution. Students are only capable of entering higher-level courses if they learn the prerequisite skills for advancement. We must focus on improving the fundamentals, not diluting advanced courses to the point that they are no longer advanced.


Rather than lower expectations, we must raise them to drive our country’s ability to compete on the global stage. A common phrase used in the Chinese language for centuries and later quoted in a 1963 speech by John F. Kennedy implied that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Creating an illusion of achievement that is not the norm neglects the values that vaulted our country to greatness.


Educational leaders have traditionally scheduled algebraic content, scientific thinking, and logic, as well as advanced language skills to begin in eighth grade or in high school. Scaled proportionately to the developmental level of the class, these skills can become part of a school curriculum earlier than previously anticipated.


The proliferation of technology and the potential for independent research has also exponentially increased this option. By building a strong standards-based curriculum with high-level content and expectations at earlier levels in a heterogeneous environment, students will successfully access Advanced Placement courses in high school. Transforming the “what” and the “how” children learn in K-6 will subsequently trigger reform in grades 7-12. This type of change, reform, and transformation requires skill and courage.


The Chinese government developed a strategic plan to economically dominate the marketplace through product innovation. Recognizing that scientific development is the result of a thorough understanding of content knowledge, our competitors have placed a huge emphasis on the attainment of knowledge. This approach results in modern Chinese cities that are architectural marvels, the largest navy in the world, and now potentially new technological developments that rival those of Silicon Valley.


In righting our ship, the U.S. must return to the pursuit of knowledge as one of its highest principles. Possessing knowledge, internally understanding it, and externally demonstrating it are the keys to universal learning. Any attempts to erode a factual body of knowledge or degrade the acquisition of its content through government policies or practices is foolish at best. School leaders who consider “lowering the bar” need to flip the narrative. Succumbing to this pressure results in false gratification which is short-lived in a global society. Let us keep the “bar high” and find a way for students to meet it.


We need to awaken the U.S from the continuous internal turmoil that diverts our attention from the challenge of raising achievement levels. By allowing unsubstantiated opinion undue influence, research and proven practice become secondary to those seeking power by manipulating others. The inconvenient truths behind knowledge, learning, and practice need to prevail if we have a chance of resetting our future position on the global stage.


The current “theater of reform” which supports both progressive and conservative narratives only paralyzes our ability to “lean into the future.” In moving forward, let us not forget that our founding fathers believed that an educated populace is necessary for a democracy to survive. To compete in this era of technology and global competition we also need to strive toward excellence because good, is no longer good enough.


Vincent F. Cotter

Vincent F. Cotter, former superintendent of schools, co-founder of the Exemplary Schools Organization, previous Smerconish contributor and author of three books on school leadership including his recent release by Rowman and Littlefield publishers, “Leaning into the Future: Building Beyond the Post—Covid-19 New Normal.”


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