With much of the media focused on foreign affairs (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran) and the economy, we thought we'd ask some of the campaign's big thinkers to talk with us about their thoughts on America's educational system. We started by exploring some of their memories of their own formative educational experiences, then asked what they thought were the strengths and weaknesses of today's system. Given that the world's economy is increasing global, we wondered if they recognized the importance of a superior education system to economic competitiveness, and what they would do if they could, to insure it. Here's what former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, had to say:
What do you remember most clearly about your own educational experience? If you could go back in time, what would you do differently in school? What would get you excited now?
I remember my grandmother teaching me to read when I was three or four, giving me books and rewarding me for reading. I had a wonderful time in school. I had great teachers who encouraged my curiosity and was mostly allowed to explore the topics that interested me. If I have one regret it is that I did not spend more time studying the natural world, just because it fascinates me.
What do you think are the best and worst features of our current educational system?
The best feature is the dedicated people who go into teaching because they genuinely love children and learning. The worst feature is the degree to which the education bureaucracies stifle creativity, making it virtually impossible to establish the missionary attitude, drive, energy and uniqueness necessary for a genuinely effective learning system.
The world is flat, according to business writer Tom Friedman.
Globalization means that smart people everywhere will be competing for the same jobs. Superior education would seem to be important to preserve jobs and maintain wage levels. Are we currently doing enough to succeed at this objective? If not, what will we have to do to succeed? What are the biggest obstacles to taking these actions?
I helped create the Hart-Rudman Commission with President Clinton and later joined it after resigning as Speaker. In March of 2001, we reported that the second greatest threat to the survival of the United States was the failure of math and science education. In fact, it was a larger threat than any conceivable conventional war. Nothing I’ve seen or learned since then has convinced me that analysis was wrong.
Without very bold, dramatic change in the rate at which Americans learn – both young people and adults – we will not be able to keep up with China and India over the next forty years. This is a crisis of the first order for the very survival of the United States as the leading power in the world. I believe we need very dramatic changes in our education models.
Fortunately, there is ample evidence of what works in education: merit based pay; increasing teacher-to-student ratios; revamping union rules to reward the best teachers; bonuses and incentives for new teachers; charter schools; and offering parents a coupon that allows them to send their children to the school that works best for their children. I’ve even suggested rewarding students in the poorest neighborhoods by paying them if they get a “B” or better in math and science. In addition – over 25 years after the creation of the personal computer - we have yet to take advantage of the enormous potential offered computerized learning systems that can tailor instruction and allow students to learn at their own pace. Far too much attention has been focused on how to move computers into the classroom when our focus should instead be on how to move the classroom inside the computer.
Unfortunately, there is a very powerful, self-protecting unionized bureaucratic structure that fights with tremendous ferocity against any effort to have accountability, competition, or any sort of real change within the education system that would modernize it for the 21st century. The amount of energy put into sustaining the monopoly no matter how bad it is absolutely astounding and would have shocked any previous generation of Americans.
What should be the role of the Federal Govt in education in the 21st century?
The federal government should ensure that the country understands the standards needed to compete in the world and facilitate the development of math and science learning. It should also do everything it can to facilitate parents and children knowing what their education choices are. However, the real decisions must be made by parents and students, not by bureaucrats in Washington.
Sabrina Maisel is the SuperKids Kids Editor. She has been on SuperKids' staff since 2002, and has designed many of the math and vocabulary tools on the site in addition to writing or editing many of the site's reviews and articles.