The new documentary "Waiting for Superman" currently playing in U.S. theaters explores the failures of American public education: it serves adults instead of kids, teachers’ unions impede progress, and teachers need better training.
However, the movie offers little in the way of solutions. Perhaps what’s needed is a sequel that offers solutions for fixing American public education. The sequel would be titled "Becoming Iron Man."
Solutions do not lie in passively waiting to be rescued by Superman — who is unlikely to show up — but in actively embracing concepts that Iron Man represents: the free market, the hard sciences, and creativity.
Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter ego, owns a multinational corporation that manufactures military weapons. Stark staunchly believes in the free market. The American public education system needs to embrace free-market principles like competition and choice.
The current system is a government monopoly, and monopolies usually fail their customers. Without the pressure to compete, monopolies have little incentive to serve customers better. Competition spurs competitors to innovate and perform better.
Developing competitive education systems that give families the freedom to choose the schools their kids attend would empower parents to remove their kids from failing schools and place them in successful ones. And it would gradually forces public schools to improve or risk losing students.
While attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Stark character studied the hard sciences: science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). His immense knowledge in those fields enabled him to have a successful career, create a multinational corporation, and contribute to America’s economic and national security.
The American public education system needs to embrace STEM education. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a STEM education bill that focuses on improving education in the STEM fields. However, the federal government has no constitutional authority to meddle with education. Education should be left to the states. Thus, STEM education needs to be embraced at the state level.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the proportion of students obtaining STEM degrees from American universities has dropped from 32% to 27% during the past decade.
At the same time, the percentage of non-American students earning these degrees from American universities has increased dramatically. These facts can be partly attributed to a trickle-down effect that began in American public schools. Not only are we losing ground to non-Americans at our own universities, but we are also falling behind other nations. America is no longer the leader in STEM education.
In absolute numbers, Japan and China are producing more graduates. America’s rate of STEM to non-STEM graduates is roughly 17%, while the international average is nearly 26%. We’re not even keeping pace with some developing countries.
This trend threatens our economic and national security. If it continues unabated, America stands to lose its position as the world leader in scientific and technological innovation. Our global competitive advantage will shift to other nations. And so will our STEM-related jobs.
The American public education system needs to embrace creative thinking skills. Kids need to learn how to be more creative because creativity is increasingly becoming one of the most important skills in the global marketplace.
In "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas L Friedman states that “the most important attribute you can have is creative imagination.” In "Five Minds for the Future," Harvard professor Howard Gardner describes five kinds of minds — or cognitive abilities — that he believes are critical to success in the 21st century. Among them is the ability to think creatively. In "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future," business guru Daniel H Pink argues that while logical thinkers ruled the first three ages, creative thinkers will rule the upcoming conceptual age.
According to a recent Newsweek article titled “The Creativity Crisis,” research shows that American creativity is declining for the first time. If this trend continues, the nation’s economic and national security will be at risk.
For centuries, America has been the world’s creativity leader. It’s critical that it maintains that position. Creativity leads to innovation and entrepreneurship. So when it declines, it drags innovation and entrepreneurship down with it. If American creativity continues to decline, innovation and entrepreneurship will decline, new jobs will not be created, unemployment rates will grow, gross domestic product will decline, the national debt will grow to unsustainable levels, and military capability will be reduced.
America has rapidly moved up the value chain transforming from an industrial-based economy to a knowledge-based economy to an innovation-based economy. Consequently, many American factory jobs and back-office jobs have moved overseas, and creativity is one of the last skills Americans have to offer the global marketplace.
Several Asian nations now know how to make products and provide services on their own; however, they are still relying on Americans to decide what those products and services should be. These decisions require creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation. This is where America still holds an advantage.
Educational efforts in America need to focus on strengthening creative thinking skills. This will help ensure that American workers will be able to compete globally. And it will help protect the nation’s economic and national security.
The inconvenient truth is that there is a vast difference between the public education system we currently have and the one that we need. Why are we waiting for Superman when what we need are more Starks?
Bill Costello, M.Ed., is the president of U.S.-based Making Minds Matter, LLC and the author of "Awaken Your Birdbrain: Using Creativity to Get What You Want."© Japan Today