The Elephant in the (Class)room

Three ways to close the global education gap.

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Millions of youngsters are heading back to school eager to start a new academic year. Many will thrive but too many will succumb to the epidemic of boredom threatening students in schools throughout our country. Boredom in schools – the opposite of the behavioral, cognitive and relational engagement that predicts long-term educational persistence and success, is surely behind the steady decline of our education system on the world stage. While we all have our favorite school, can recall an engaging teacher or a visionary principal, the system as a whole is not working.

Once the envy of the world, the United States is now educationally behind in measure after measure, from preschool to college. The global gap starts early indeed: 81 percent of children in the developed world enrolled in preschool last year, while only 69 percent were enrolled in the U.S. Whereas two generations ago we led the world in the percentage of high school graduates, today we are at a mediocre 11th place. More alarming are projections recently released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: Among those 25-year-old and younger we now rank an abysmal 23rd in the estimates of youth and emerging adults who will complete high school over their life time. In Los Angeles, the nation's second largest Unified School District, only 64 percent of the class of 2014 is on track for graduation. Two generations ago we ranked third in the world in college graduation rates but comparative OECD data show that less than 50 percent of Americans 25-to-34 year olds have completed college. While 31percent of college students drop out in the world's high-income countries, in the U.S. over 50 percent will drop out.

Of course, every generation claims education is more important than ever before. Today is no different: nearly all of the basic indicators of wellness, productivity and socio-economic mobility are linked to education. From the flourishing of children, to the ability of the citizenry to act intelligently and deliberatively on the pressing issues of the day, education is the sine qua non. Furthermore, in times of economic decline, as Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has argued, "the economic strength of any nation depends on the skills of its people."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Here is the heart of the problem: Walk into any American school and ask students to complete the sentence, "School is ________." The most common answer will be "boring." The test-driven, market-oriented education reform of late has contributed to a culture of boredom in schools that is asphyxiating the cognitive engagement of too many American kids. Authentic learning and autonomous inquiry now take the back seat to test prepping and test taking. If you think the current cheating scandals plaguing even our elite exam schools (such as Stuyvesant in New York City) are the biggest indictment against the test-driven mania, think again.

Boredom is the elephant in the (class)room.

To get beyond boredom will be a steep climb. Here are three domains in which we need to do better or we will continue to decline in the international arena:

First, kids are bored in schools but are overly engaged with (read: addicted to) computer games and social media. To make the tools that engage this generation of kids educationally meaningful, we need to turn computer science into a core academic competency. In the biggest technological intervention in the history of American education, the Los Angeles Unified School District will invest millions of dollars to purchase over 700,000 iPads – one for every student. But such an investment is unlikely to be effective – students are already avid technology consumers – without a paradigm-shifting plan aimed to turn every student into a creator and producer of technology. Research by Jane Margolis and her colleagues suggest that this will require a more rigorous, engaging and stepped-up curriculum for all students. We need to teach our students to go beyond boring, rudimentary computing skills and simply using applications and instead teach them the problem-solving, logical thinking and creativity that are at the heart of innovation. Schools in Stockholm's immigrant-and-refugee-rich districts are far ahead of us in the use of technologies in classrooms where the most disadvantaged students are concentrated.