There is a perceived crisis in education, the nature of which depends upon perspective. The supposed problems within the educational system and their solutions have attained a high profile in both the popular press and in educational journals.
This crisis appears to manifest itself in two forms: 1) a decline in the ability of students to exhibit proficiency in basic language and mathematical skills; and 2) the failure of the educational system to prepare students for a highly competitive, technological global village. The solutions to these impending disasters usually include: a "back to basics" educational regime, and a post Sputnik-like resurgence of funding to develop more and better science and technology programs.
Crisis perception (1) gathered a great deal of momentum recently, after international "standardized" testing procedures were carried out. The results consistently show the U.S.A. ranking near the bottom of the list of nations. Higher level science and mathematics skills are very low in high school for students in the U.S.A., and universities generally acknowledge a lack in basic language skills among their first year students. However, national ranking emphasizes position relative to other nations. Whether the difference in scores is significant is a matter of interpretation.
Furthermore, there is a widespread belief that educational standards have declined over the years, even though there are no methods of measurement that can be used to compare the degree of learning from decade to decade; the context of testing and interpretation of results change from era to era. Even the comparison of contemporary educational systems is very difficult and can be misleading (for example, Japanese vs. North American systems).
These ambiguities allow for the manipulation of "data" to suit any particular interest. In this case, the interests of corporate America have been abundantly and conspicuously interjected into the educational system. A few examples include fast food chain learning incentive programs, forest industry-oriented curriculum enhancement packages, private television student news networks complete with mandatory commercial advertising, Department of Energy partnerships with schools and the increasingly available corporate research funding for universities. All this, curiously, for a work force that is rapidly diminishing due in no small way to technological "improvements." The resolution of this paradox is to focus these schemes into elitist programs for "gifted" (i.e., middle class, white) children under the pretence of using the "best" to create an information and innovation resource base for the future.
Another major problem is that standardized achievement tests are notorious for their orientation towards measurement of rote knowledge ("product" in current educational jargon) and as such, preclude assessment of the recent attempts to reform education (for example "process learning" and critical thinking). The corporate sector has fabricated a comparison between a presently deficient educational system and a nostalgically perceived superior past. Both systems are variations on the same paradigm which in reality require a radical transformation contrary to the corporate agenda which is focused on producing a technologically literate "commodity" (i.e., person) that is prepared to meet the demands of a globally competitive society.
Using business principles, the bottom line for education from this perspective promotes the easily quantifiable "3-R's" aspects of education, and discourages critical and imaginative thinking. The former is a necessity for corporate life, the latter is a threat to the healthy functioning of the corporate machine. Also disregarded in this business-like analysis are the hazardous social consequences of pushing a society into extreme global competitiveness (the usual aspiration of North Americans wishing to emulate the Japanese educational system).
Crisis perception (2), which is more specific to science and mathematics, includes a prediction of a massive, impending shortage of scientists, mathematicians and engineers. The demand for these people is linked to the unsubstantiated claim that a technological panacea, controlled by transnationals, will keep "us" competitive and ultimately transform the human world into a global village free from pollution and international conflict. Consequently, the military would seem to be redundant. Although some endeavors have recently been curtailed, the military (especially in the U.S.A.) appears to be expanding into the ostensible role of benign global peace force and protector of the environment. The recent "Gulf War" has certainly been a testament to the extreme distortion of this premise. Protection of the environment (i.e., U.S. interests) by the military is a natural outgrowth of the exponential depletion of global resources as more and more people are scrambling for a diminishing piece of the pie. As such, military activity will continue to increase (since 1948, military spending has tripled), and only the perceived threat will shift: from the Soviets to the exhaustion of natural "resources." It is ironic that these future protectors of the environment account for an estimated 10-30% of all world environmental destruction.
Currently, over one half of the world's scientists and engineers work for, or get research grants directly from, defense departments. In the U.S., it has been estimated that two thirds of this group work for the military-industrial complex. The massive requirement of scientists and engineers fostered through crisis perception (2) would be primarily usurped by expanding military activities. It is therefore in the interests of the military to promote an educational crisis in science and mathematics.
Any idea may be substantiated within a sufficiently narrow context, whether it is the absolute safety of pesticides, the absolute necessity for biotechnology or the absolute existence of an educational crisis. As the military-industrial complex grows and the enclosure of the world by transnationals and the banking system proceeds, the "crisis in education" is manufactured by vested military and corporate interests that are only concerned with maintaining the status quo and their version of democracy.
These influences obscure the real crisis in education which includes the inequality of the system with respect to race, class and gender, the pursuit of information rather than wisdom, and the preparation of human commodities for the machinery of corporate control.