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Opinion: Why Americans need to reinvent the entire education system

Senator Bernie Sanders argues that American public colleges should be tuition-free. Higher education should be, writes Robert Reich, but the US needs to reexamine and reinvent the country's entire education system to prepare for tomorrow's economy.

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    Senator Bernie Sanders holds a news conference to discuss legislation “to provide tuition-free higher education for students at 4-year colleges and universities in the United States" at the US Capitol in Washington. Robert Reich agrees but the US also needs to reinvent the country's entire education system to prepare for tomorrow's economy.
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Senator Bernie Sanders is making waves with a big idea to reinvent education: Making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

I couldn’t agree more. Higher education isn’t just a personal investment. It’s a public good that pays off in a more competitive workforce and better-informed and engaged citizens. Every year, we spend nearly $100 billion on corporate welfare, and more than $500 billion on defense spending. Surely ensuring the next generation can compete in the global economy is at least as important as subsidies for big business and military adventures around the globe. 

In fact, I think we can and must go further — not just making public higher education tuition-free, but reinventing education in America as we know it. (That’s the subject of this latest video in my partnership with MoveOn, “The Big Picture: Ten Ideas to Save the Economy.” Please take a moment to watch now.)

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In the big picture, much of our education system — from the bells that ring to separate classes to memorization drills — was built to mirror the assembly lines that powered the American economy for the last century. As educators know, what we need today is a system of education that cultivates the critical thinking skills necessary for the economy of tomorrow.

We have to reinvent education because it’s not working for too many of our kids – who are either dropping out of high school because they aren’t engaged, or not getting the skills they need, or paying a fortune for college and ending up with crushing student debt.

How do we get there?

First, stop the wall-to-wall testing that’s destroying the love of teaching and learning. Let’s get back to a curriculum that builds curiosity, problem solving, teamwork and perseverance, and away from teaching to the test. Give teachers space to teach, and give students freedom to learn. Limit classrooms to 20 children so teachers can give students the individual attention they need.

Increase federal funding for education. The majority of U.S. public school students today live in poverty. That’s a staggering figure. Our schools and educators aren’t equipped to deal with this harsh reality but we know ways to change that. High-quality early childhood education, for starters. Community schools to serve the whole child, with health services, counselors, and after school activities.

Offer high school seniors the option of a year of technical education, followed by two years of free technical education at a community college. The route into the middle class shouldn’t always require a four-year college degree. America needs technicians who can install, service, repair, and upgrade complex equipment in offices, laboratories, hospitals, and factories.

And Senator Sanders has proposed, make public higher education free — from community college to state universities — completely free, as it was in many states in the 1950s and 1960s. Higher education isn’t just a personal investment. It’s a public good that pays off in a more competitive workforce and better-informed and engaged citizens.

And critically, we must increase pay and improve conditions for the men and women who power our schools—teachers and school staff who educate our kids, clean our classrooms, and keep our schools safe.

The law of supply and demand isn’t repealed at the schoolhouse door. We’re paying investment bankers hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars a year to make money for Wall Street. We ought to be paying educators and staff a decent wage to develop and guide the nation’s human capital – an investment that would benefit everyone.

By reinventing education in these sensible ways, we all gain.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on www.robertreich.org.

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