OPINION

Jim Nowlan column: Sleepwalking through our own decline

Geneseo Republic

Readers will be pleased to know that I have brought on a part-time research assistant. So, I will no longer have to make things up for my writings, and can use real facts based on research, if I choose to. What an improvement! 

Jim Nowlan

New RA Kyle Dennison of Kewanee is a sharp, passionate young teacher, who has taught math in both low- and middle-income public schools, in his seventh year now. Our first discussions have already led us to an important, vexing problem: 

Abundant research shows that students from low- and modest-income brown, Black and white American households have, for decades, lagged far behind upper-income families in math achievement. As a result, American students overall score poorly in math and science against other developed nations. And even students from our best high schools often score less well than students from Finland, Hong Kong and major cities in China, such as Shanghai, which alone has about the population of California. 

If the U.S. wants to remain the global “king of the hill” in wealth and technological achievement, we simply must increase overall math achievement of our students. It’s a national security issue, literally. 

Simply put: China seeks to replace us as the dominant technological power, and it is largely focusing on education to achieve its goal.

Upwardly mobile Chinese parents (and most Chinese parents see themselves as moving up, because of rapid economic growth) assiduously push their children to study hard and achieve in school. I use this illustration to support my point.

More than a decade ago, I arrived in Shanghai to become a visiting professor at one of its leading universities. The day after my flight to that bustling city of 28 million, I was walking down a leafy side street on a Saturday morning. I noticed small children in cute uniforms walking toward a low-slung building. The Monday following, I asked my host professor what was going on.

“Oh, they were going to school. Our youngsters attend school until noon every Saturday.” And, I would add, for one more hour of instruction each week day than in the U.S.

I mused to myself that if Chinese parents were told their children could not go to school on Saturday, there would be riots in the street. Conversely, if American parents were told their kids had to go to school on Saturday, I fear there would probably also be riots in the street.

Math and science achievement are central to economic development and the wealth generated by rapidly evolving digital and quantum technologies.

What can we do? My new RA Kyle Dennison recommends the following, which is buttressed by much research that he and I came across:

Longer school year and day, from 174 or so days a year, to 190 or more, and increase instructional hours from 5 to 5½ or 6, as in the nations that lead us significantly in math achievement;

Year-round school, replacing the long summer break, which causes learning loss, with a number of shorter breaks throughout the year, and

Increase in the quality of our teachers. The teaching profession is so highly valued in Finland that it is hard to get into their teachers’ colleges (only 10 percent of applicants do); in the U.S., it is hard not to get into our schools of education. In the U.S., with exceptions, of course, the best and brightest do not pursue careers in teaching, for reasons of low pay, low respect and testing and regulatory overload. 

None of these recommendations would count for much, however, until our parents and society set higher achievement expectations and goals for our youngsters, and provide the encouragement and discipline critical to student achievement.

Based on my six decades of observation of rural, small town as well as low-income urban settings, there has been a woeful cultural inattention to the importance of educational achievement. We must put classroom goals on the same lofty level of importance as crossing the Friday night football goal line.

Low-income families on our many welfare programs should be asked, in return for government supports, to improve their parenting skills and attention to their kids’ school effort.

I appreciate that our society has been going through much the past year and more, with the pandemic. But, just as England slept for a decade while Hitler rearmed the Third Reich, America seems to be asleep while China and other dynamic Asian nations seek to race past us.

Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three unindicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.