I recently began reading Paul Taylor’s The Next Generation. The premise of the book is how swiftly our country is changing. In his book, he wrote, “ . . . the America of the near future will look nothing like the America of the recent past.” As I began reading The Next America, I was transported back to my childhood. I was born during the age of “Sputnik.” You will recall, or surely have read that in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik, and the space race was on. The Soviets’ triumph jarred the American people and sparked a vigorous response to make sure the United States did not fall behind its Communist rival. Leading our response was President John F. Kennedy, who began a dramatic expansion of the U.S. space program, and committed the nation to the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Instrumental to the success of achieving our goal was our educational system, the foundation of which is public education.
Education has been behind most of our great accomplishments as a nation. Looking back through history, our leaders have reminded us of the importance of nurturing and protecting our educational system. Adlai Stevenson said, “The free common school system is the most American thing about America.” John F. Kennedy lamented that “our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”
Right now in my state of Kansas, as you listen to all the debates about the efficiency and effectiveness of public education, the language we hear seems to be sending a very different message about the degree to which we value public education. Unfortunately, here in Kansas, instead of feeling celebrated, our teachers have felt under attack:
- In Kansas, “what” our teachers are teaching is in question.
- In Kansas, our funding has been declared “out of control,” even though the levels we receive are equal to what we spent on education in 2001.
- In Kansas, our standards of college and career readiness have been described as “big government take-over.”
- In Kansas, we seek to make the elections of our boards of education partisan, or party-driven, and not elections based on the interests of the entire community.
The reality that education is critical both to the development of citizens and the strength of our economy, seems to be lost behind the cloud of political rhetoric. Perhaps our country is changing in ways that go beyond our changing demographics. Perhaps what is really changing is the degree to which we value our education system. If that’s so, how will we respond to whatever the “Sputnik” is for our children’s generation? I hope it’s not with “duck and cover,” which some of you will remember was a pretty widespread response for my generation. The answer is, and must always be, “It’s Up to Us” to decide.