'Average Is Officially Over'

Two authors paint a bleak picture of the nation's future.

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New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and National Center of Education and the Economy President Marc Tucker painted a bleak picture of America's future at a promotional event in Washington, D.C., yesterday.

"Average is officially over," declared Friedman, who was promoting his new book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.

"We are in the worst kind of decline—a slow decline," he said. "It's just slow enough for us to think that we're not in a decline, or that it's reversible."

Friedman said the "connected" world he described in his 2005 book The World Is Flat has become "hyperconnected."

"When I was out saying the world is flat, Facebook wasn't in it, Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky, 4G was a parking place, LinkedIn was a prison, and, for most people, Skype was a typo," he said. "That all happened in six years."

As technology advances, jobs are being outsourced and automated. People without a college education or technical skills are being increasingly squeezed out of the jobs market, Friedman said. America needs to rapidly educate its lowest-performing students.

"We have so many people in our urban centers who are way below average. In a world where middle jobs have been crushed, there is nothing for them," Friedman said. "If you do not have a high school degree that allows you to get through college without significant remediation, there is literally nothing for you."

Both Friedman and Tucker, who recently authored the book Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems, said that United States workers are becoming increasingly ordinary and expendable in a world that demands innovation and creativity.

"Why should global employers pay more to our people at any given skill level than they will pay elsewhere in the world for the same skills?" Tucker asked. "The answer, my friends, is: They will not."

America has to educate its people to be more highly educated, and quickly, Friedman said. In addition to the "three R's," they need "communication, collaboration, and creativity" skills. A New York Times columnist, he said, has gone from having to beat seven daily newspaper competitors to having to beat 70 million worldwide bloggers, tweeters, and writers.

If the United States doesn't "invent the future faster than [its] competitors," Tucker said, "we are going to be poor."

The way forward, Tucker said, is education reform. But it's mostly bad news on that front as well.

"We are in the grips of a reform agenda that has virtually nothing in common with the agenda being pursued by countries with the most successful education systems. This is a stunning reality," he told the crowd at the Swedish Embassy. Sweden, perhaps ironically, is one of the countries that far outpaces America on international exams.

He added: "We are pursuing ideas that are virtually ignored by the people who are beating the pants off us every single day."

In America, vicious battles between unions and government lead the public to have poor perceptions of teachers. In the best-performing countries, starting teacher wages rival those of entry-level engineers, and teaching is a highly-regarded job that competes with professions such as medicine and law. In the United States, large numbers of classes are taught by teachers not certified to teach those subjects, and requirements to enter the profession are often waived due to shortages, something Tucker said is "inconceivable" in other countries.

"This country is now, in my view, in a vicious cycle with regards to teacher quality," he said. "I think that will condemn us for years to come."

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