Just a decade ago, if you asked someone which country in the world had the greatest number of proficient English speakers, they would have said the United States—and they would have been correct. If you asked that question today, the response would usually be the same; however, few people would be overly shocked to learn that India actually holds that position now. In a country of 1.2 billion people, one third of the population of India is proficient in conversational English, with around 100 million speaking well enough to communicate professionally.
The world is a much smaller place than it used to be just a few short decades ago. Advances in technology have made it possible to communicate and, more importantly, collaborate with people around the world. The economic, social, technological, and organizational effects of this flattening of the world, as Thomas Friedman called it, are countless and universally significant. Its effects on education and the future of America’s students are no less important.
It’s common to hear parents or teachers comment that their school is the best in the district or better than the school across town, but that comparison is quickly losing its significance. As far as the long-term occupational opportunities of today’s elementary and secondary students are concerned, it may already be more meaningful to compare our schools to those in Bangalore and Shenzhen. And that isn’t just an alarmist notion meant to fuel education reform.
Many of the jobs that our parents and grandparents worked, earning enough for a comfortable living without needing higher education, have left our shores for labor markets that offer cheaper and more efficient employees. Increasingly, the jobs available to our students will require higher education, more specialized knowledge and experience, and a healthy dose of creativity. Children in the U.S. will be expected to know more than they ever have and be able to synthesize that knowledge in ways that allow them to solve new problems and form new ideas.
The U.S may still be the Land of Opportunity, but it’s important to note that it’s the Land of Opportunity per capita. In a globalized job market, how long will our per capita advantage hold as we compete against countries with more than a billion people? Roughly 22% of Americans, about 68 million people, have a bachelor’s degree. That’s equal to about 6% of the separate populations of China and India. And because so few students in these emerging super economies have the chance to pursue higher education, they are often much more used to succeeding in painfully competitive environments.
In a global economy, these facts aren’t a problem. As more individuals across the globe attain more knowledge and education, the total benefit for the world as a whole will be greater. But still, the threat of increased competition for the types of jobs American students will need in the coming decades in order to earn a comfortable living is a valid concern we need to address at the local and national levels.
The average education standards in the U.S. are still higher than in many similarly developed countries, but the real competition won’t come from the average students of comparable nations—they’ll come from the exceptional students of the emerging super economies, and there are more of them than there are of us!
How do we prepare the students of today for the global markets of their futures (and our present)? One of the easy requisite answers is money. We’ll need more funding for education at all levels to maintain our competitive edge, but that’s only one side of the equation. Is there an element of lowered ambition on the part of students, parents, and in rare cases, educators? Have the last two centuries of relative ease finally caught up with us?
Ultimately, no matter how much money we throw at the problem, we’ll need to figure out how to reignite the passion for learning and education we felt as we fought to establish a robust economy during the industrial revolution, or as we raced the Russians to the moon. That’s the passion students feel right now in countries that have only recently been able to offer the opportunity for higher learning to even a small percentage of their citizens.
This is a complex issue that has admittedly been oversimplified for the sake of brevity here. It is, after all, only a blog! For more information, check out this link and take a look at The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman. Tell us what you think. How can we increase funding and ignite the urgency our students will need to compete in a global economy in the coming years?