When the Soviet Union launched a satellite called Sputnik into space, it scared America into education overdrive in 1957. Now the United States is facing another more-powerful foreign threat that should motivate teachers again, Washington state’s top education official said Tuesday.
Foreign countries invest more in high school education and their students could start leaving Americans in the dust in the global competition for jobs, Terry Bergeson, superintendent of public instruction, told 1,000 educators in Spokane.
“This is worse than Sputnik,” she said.
In a blunt speech about the challenges ahead, Bergeson opened the Summer Institute for professional development conference in Spokane. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction held four conferences this summer, which presented teaching techniques and resources for state teachers.
“This is about getting inspired again,” Bergeson told a packed crowd in the Lewis and Clark High School auditorium. “I really feel we are the most powerful and important profession in the world.”
Even with educators playing a crucial role, the United States is falling behind, she said. Foreign countries understood that the U.S. economy was based on education and invested heavily in their schools, she said.
In countries like India and China only the brightest students graduate with degrees, but that number is still larger than the number of American graduates each year.
Ireland, which has raised its economy to among the highest in Europe, promises free college for students who pass a battery of graduation tests, Bergeson said.
As she sees it, those students are educated to take an active role in their country, and Americans are not. In countries that have a democratic vote, the United States ranks 140th in the number of voters who exercise their right, she said.
“Here we are the freest nation in the world, and here we are giving it away,” Bergeson said, referring to the right to vote.
Surveys show 65 percent of people age 18 to 35 in America see no value in understanding international events, she said.
There are also domestic challenges to confront like the continual low test scores of some student populations.
For instance, 10th-grade, black male students in the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning showed little improvement in the past five years. In 1999, 78 percent failed. In 2004, 74 percent failed, which is 50 percent higher than the failure rate among all students.
“We have to look at this. This is our society. We have to come to terms with it,” Bergeson said. “It’s time to stop talking about what we’re going to do and start doing it.”
She urged them all to share with each other the tactics that work best in teaching. Educators need to accept that teaching begins with the student, and parents must also be told the importance of work in the schools.
Bergeson reminded everyone that in a little more than 1,000 days, the class of 2008 will graduate – the first required to pass the WASL to earn a diploma.
The speech resonated with teachers, who at times gasped at the figures on black students.
Greenacres Middle School band and math teacher Mike Fosburg had heard Bergeson speak in the past, but he said this speech was more dramatic.
“Some of the statistics were very shocking,” Fosburg said. At the same time the speech inspired him.
“This focuses you for the year,” Fosburg said, as he displayed the dozen sessions he marked in his program that he plans to attend.
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