in Search of Wisdom

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October 25th, 2012

An Education Manifesto


Robert M. Fitch

The recent presidential debates have not dealt with in any depth the most important long-term issue facing the country – education. It was mentioned Tuesday night, to be sure, but much more emphasis needs to be paid.  Whether we flourish or flounder as a nation ultimately depends upon the quality of thinking of the people and of the government of the people.  Albert Einstein said it well:

“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”

The news is not good. We still have superb research and graduate education universities, but to uphold standards they now draw heavily on foreign students and faculty. Many if not most of our kids aren’t competitive in the world today.

The terrible battle in Wisconsin over teachers’ collective bargaining rights, and of the teachers’ strike in Chicago over a host of issues, prominently, seniority issues, are symptoms of our concerns, but they are not focused on what’s wrong. I believe that if teachers want to be unionized, they should be allowed to, but they have a responsibility in turn not to abuse their power.

The Size and Nature of our Current Problems in K – 12 Education

The PISA Study

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted exams of tens of thousands of 15-year-olds in 65 countries, the results of which were reported in December 2010 ( They covered science, math and reading. Experts agree that the results are valid evaluations of students’ knowledge and ability to creatively solve novel problems.

The results should have been embarrassing for the United States, although I’d guess that very few in this country paid any attention. Here’s how the US students did on each of the tests:

Math – 31st place

Science – 23rd place

Reading – 17th place

Shanghai swept to first place by far in all three exams, with Finland, South Korea and Singapore coming in second in science, reading and math, respectively. This would not have happened a few decades ago, when the US would have taken firsts.

Dropout and Graduation Rates

When a student enters high school and subsequently drops out, there is a terrible waste of a life unfulfilled and public expense in educating that person. In about half of the United States fully one third of the students entering high school never graduate. What a waste!

[Graduation rates, taken from a study by the National Education Association]


US Job Vacancies

According the US Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 3.7 million job openings available as of July 2012*. Almost half of those are in areas requiring at least a good high school education, if not college – 1.35 million jobs waiting and wanting in “Professional & Business” and “Education and Health”. These jobs are going begging because even though almost 8 percent of the working population are jobless and many more have given up looking for jobs, so many cannot qualify. They don’t have an adequate education.

* US Bureau of Labor Statistics, USDL-12-1831 [].

Colleges of Education

I believe it’s fair to say that schools of education largely teach the technology of education, that is they teach one how to teach. This is a good thing, but it surely should not be the only thing that prospective educators learn in four years of college. They should have a rich instruction in the liberal arts with a major that is not in education. It makes no sense that the science teacher in my kids’ high school was the football coach who never had any science, even though he had earned certification as a teacher.

David McCullough, perhaps our greatest living historian was just interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes. He was pretty tough on schools of education. It’s worth quoting in some detail:

Morley Safer: You, you, calling us historically illiterate.
David McCullough: Yes. I feel that very much so. I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn't know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she'd never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, "What are we doing that's so wrong, so pathetic?" I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it's not their fault. It's our fault. And when I say our fault I don't mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history. [Please see the section below entitled “The Boat People – ed]
Morley Safer: But are the teachers themselves semi-illiterate in history?
David McCullough: Well we need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers. I don't feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. "Show them what you love" is the old adage. And we've all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.”
Marc Tucker, of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has shown that today our schools of education fall far short of the standards in other countries such as in Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Ontario. There is a much higher degree of professionalism, higher teacher salaries, and higher social respect for teachers in such places than in the US. And their students far outperform ours.

Public Discourse in the United States

Where to start?! A sign of the times is this, from one Vicki Meyers:

“Over 211,000 of you signed my petition agreeing that we should have Fact

Checkers at the presidential and vice-presidential debates next month.”

President Bill Clinton recently pointed out that people who have an ideology tend to bend the facts to fit their ideology instead of seeking the truth. We have a plague of ideology in this country that is stifling any public – particularly political – discourse. The ability of the Congress to bring about reforms in public education suffers terribly. Our children and theirs are at great disadvantage as a result.

What is Known to Work?

There are and always have been any number of excellent public and private schools in the United States. Yet the majority of the population continues on the path of mediocrity and even ineptitude. This is especially true in minority neighborhoods, since racism is still alive and well in America.

All we really have to do is to copy the successful schools.

Head Start Program?**

“Head Start is a federal program that aims to promote the school readiness of preschool-age children from low-income families. It began in 1965 to provide summer school for children about to start kindergarten and later expanded to include year-round preschool classes. The program also serves younger children through Early Head Start.

Overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start will spend more than $7.9 billion in 2012 and serves nearly a million children nationwide.”

** New York Times 24 September, 2012

But does it work?

The US Department of Health and Human Services commissioned a well-designed study of the effectiveness of the program that issued a final report in 2010.*** The bottom line of a large and complex assessment project states:

“In sum, this report finds that providing access to Head Start has benefits for both 3-year- olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits………”

***U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. Head Start Final Report 2010

Many states have dropped out of the program, citing either financial exigencies, a lack of cost-effectiveness, or both. The chances of Head Start being shut down entirely are slim. Once a very large federal program with attendant bureaucracy and vested financial and political interests is established, it becomes almost impossible to get rid of it.

Best Schools with Best Practice

Everyone knows that some schools are truly excellent, with great teachers, enthusiastic and hard-working students, and excellent outcomes. So why don’t we just copy them? The common features of good schools are more or less comprised of:

Highly qualified teachers working as true professionals

Competitive salaries. What is meant by this is salaries that can lure people into a profession that they actually want but don’t enter because salaries in industry are so much more. Scientists are a prime example.

Small class sizes

A system that emphasizes teaching the student, not teaching to the test

Encouraging creative problem-solving, and

A rich curriculum including arts, drama, music, and physical education (as opposed to ‘sports’)

Online courses such as Kahn Academy and many others allow students to learn at their own pace, be it faster or slower.

Other nations have much better secondary educational programs than ours. See for example Finland, South Korea, Shanghai, and Japan. Are we too proud to take what’s best in these countries and apply them locally?

Science as a Foundation for Education

Finally I want to spend some time discussing why I believe science should form the basis of all education.

What is science? It is simply asking questions about our physical environment and then finding the answers. No more, no less. The ‘hard’ sciences are perceived as hard because they have developed a methodology – ‘the Scientific Method’, a discipline that attempts to lead us to good answers and not to get fooled by inadequate data and thinking. It also promotes a healthy skepticism of authoritarian pronouncements.

Every child is born a scientist. Just look at a baby, touching, feeling, looking, tasting – trying to make sense of the physical world around him/her. They learn that a square block won’t fit a round hole, that sugar tastes sweet, and that an arm can be used for lifting things.

So it makes sense to build on this natural passion for understanding in order to construct a formal education. Science is thus a perfect entrée into a life of learning.


Let me tell you about the best program I’ve seen yet, one that I was intimately involved with at one time (I was chairman of its Advisory Board for several years). It was called the National Science Resources Center, a joint project of the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution, and is now the Smithsonian Science Education Center – SSEC. Their basic premise is that children love to explore with real objects, be they butterflies, batteries and bulbs, weather or organisms. So that a well-researched, developmental, inquiry-based, hands-on curriculum without textbooks will bring enthusiasm for learning, structured and disciplined learning, and creative problem solving. There’s an important added benefit in that this leads to better academic performance in all other areas, e.g. math, language, history, arts, etc., as is well documented in many studies.

There are broader cultural values in science as well. Perhaps no one has said this better than the Librarian of the historic Library of Alexandria, Egypt. His statement in an editorial in “Science” magazine is appended below.

The SSEC has now implemented K-12 programs in 1,200 school districts in the United States affecting some 30% of all students. Progress! [].

“Children of the Boat People”

After the war in Vietnam a number of boat people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia started arriving at our shores. Mostly they had nothing more than the shirts on their backs; they spoke no English; and they put themselves at our mercy as seekers of asylum, having assumed that since they had helped the Americans, we would help them. They were given shelter in some of the poorest inner city neighborhoods, and there they sent their children to school. What happened next was a minor miracle. In a matter of months the kids were not only learning English but they shot to the top of their classes in science and math, and achieved at least average grades in English! How could this be?

This attracted the attention of a group of researchers at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor who conducted a large study over a number of years to find out how they did it. The results* in a nutshell show that family values were all-important. A typical scenario was that after school at home, the family sat down at a round table for dinner. After dinner the table was cleared and the homework came out. The oldest child helped the next younger, and so on down the line, with the parents circling behind to ensure wo
rk was getting done. These were families greatly influenced by the precepts of Confucius, precepts that affected not just ‘Indo China’ but China, Korea and Japan as well. It’s why we see so many Orientals at the tops of graduate schools, music organizations and scientific research institutes here in the United States.

The Michigan researchers found “the following core values constitute the bedrock of the refugees’ culturally derived beliefs:

Education and Achievement

A cohesive family

Hard Work”

A secondary set of so-called “normative” values reflected almost as much consensus as those above:

Family Loyalty


Morality and Ethics

Carry out Obligations

Restraint and Discipline

Perpetuate Ancestral Lineage

Respect for Elders

Cooperative and Harmonious Family

Note that “family values” as used here are different from those political code words in common use currently in the US.

How well did the kids do in school? Here are just two measures, their average grades and their math scores on the California Achievement Tests (CAT). They did best in math because language ability was less important than in other subjects.

On the GPA’s 79% of the children earned A’s or B’s in their local schools, and on the state-wide math tests 85% earned A’s or B’s. In the Indochinese culture these results are probably to be expected; in ours, they are hugely impressive.

Maybe there’s something here that explains how the Vietnamese were able to defeat not only the French imperialists but also the world’s greatest war machine, the USA.

  1. *N. Caplan, M.H. Choy & J.K. Whitmore, “Children of the Boat People”, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994

Those who believe in American Exceptionalism should look deeply into the eyes of these children. They may be among those who came to the United States with nothing but the rags on their backs, and beat your kids in science and math. There is a clear strength in family, there is intelligence, and an incredible work ethic. They gave up everything except their boat-home to preserve their family values that would otherwise have been destroyed by the communists.


This all brings us to a call for action.

An Education Manifesto

1.The most important concern of our community is the education of our children. They are our future.

2.The quality of our primary and secondary education has declined in comparison to that of many other countries. It continues to decline.

3.The bedrock foundation of education must be the family. Strong family values are essential to assuring that children will learn well.

4.No child should be born unwanted. How can they do well under such circumstances?

5.Science education grows out of the natural curiosity that every child is born with. It should constitute the basis for the development of life-long learning.

6.There are many excellent model educational programs within our country and in others. We should learn from them. There is very little need for innovation. Why spend billions on inventing new programs when so many superb models already exist? The inquiry-based science curriculum of the Smithsonian Science Education Center of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences is exemplary.

7.The teaching profession needs an overhaul starting with Schools of Education. Teachers must be treated as, and behave as, professionals. Truly professional teachers must receive remuneration that is competitive with that in other professions. Teachers unions must give up seniority as a basis for promotion. No corporate manager would agree to a seniority system; nor would one agree to Last-in-first-out (LIFO) hiring practices. There is evidence that seniority rules are being eliminated under the current administration’s “Race to the Top” project.

8.Arts are as essential as any of the more ‘academic’ disciplines in enriching our lives.

9.Every child should have physical education to ensure a healthy and happy future. Inter-school sports competitions should be abandoned in favor of intramural contests in which all students can participate. Far too much energy and treasure is spent on inter-school contests that benefit so few students in any meaningful way.

10. A plan of action is implicit in these observations. They constitute a vision of where we wish to go. Most difficult by far, in my estimation, is the building of stronger families with the ideals as exemplified by the boat people. No Federal bureaucracy can accomplish it. There are many organizations, which, if they combined their energies and subscribed to this manifesto, could form a ‘critical mass’ to bring about the needed change. Churches, educational organizations, foundations, and individual leaders are needed to come together to save our nation from this current decline

      11. For too long we have been treating the symptoms. It is time we started curing the disease.


The Values of Science

by Ismail Serageldin, Director, The Library of Alexandria, Egypt

IN EGYPT AND TUNISIA, ORDINARY CITIZENS HAVE TOPPLED AUTOCRATS; ELSEWHERE IN THE ARAB WORLD, they still battle dictators, armed with little more than their belief in freedom, human rights, and democracy. What sort of society comes after the revolution? Many fear that the idealism of the revolutionary democrats will only pave the way for theological autocrats who preach an intolerant doctrine. But fighting extremism is best done not by censorship or autocracy but by embracing pluralism and defeating ideas with ideas. And here, science has much to say, particularly about the values that are needed for societies to be truly open and democratic, because these are the values of science.

As the British scientist Jacob Bronowski observed more than half a century ago, the enterprise of science requires the adoption of certain values that are adhered to by its practitioners with exceptional rigor. These values also provide the basis for enhancing human capabilities and human welfare. Truth and honor are of the utmost importance. Any scientist who manufactures data risks being ostracized indefinitely from the scientific community, and he or she jeopardizes the credibility of science for the larger society. A scientist may err in interpreting data, but no one can accept the fabrication of data. What other fields of human activity can rival this level of commitment to absolute truth? Teamwork has become essential in most fields of science, and it requires that all the members of the team receive the recognition they deserve. Contributions are also cumulative, and each should be recognized for his or her contribution. It is a sentiment well captured in Isaac Newton’s famous statement that “If I have seen farther than most, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Science requires the freedom to enquire, to challenge, to think, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted.

Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm, or at least substantially expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain constructive subversiveness built into the scientific enterprise, as a new generation of scientists makes its own contribution. Our respect and admiration for Newton are not diminished by the achievements of Albert Einstein. We can admire both.

This constant renewal and advancement of our scientific understanding is a central feature of the scientific enterprise. It requires a tolerant engagement with the contrarian view that is grounded in disputes arbitrated by the rules of evidence and rationality.

Science demands rationality and promotes civility in discourse. Ad hominem attacks are not accepted. Science treats all humans equally. Scientists are concerned with the content of the scientific work, not with the person who produced it. Science is open to all, regardless of nationality, race, religion, or sex. These values of science are universal values worth defending, not just to promote the pursuit of science but to produce a better and more humane society.

The new Arab societies we are building must be open pluralistic societies that are producers of knowledge and new opportunities. Our youth have sparked our revolution, just as other young people have transformed societies, reinvented business enterprise, and redefined our scientific understanding of the world we live in. Today, as they lead the rebuilding of our societies, they must embrace the values of science. Together, all armed with these values, we can think of the unborn, remember the forgotten, give hope to the forlorn, include the excluded, reach out to the unreached, and by our actions from this day onward lay the foundation for better tomorrows. Ref: Science 3 June 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6034 p. 1127 DOI: 10.1126/science.1208806

About the author:

Dr. Fitch is President of his own consulting firm, Fitch & Associates, based in Taos, New Mexico. He retired as Senior Vice President for R & D and Chief Scientific Officer Worldwide for SC Johnson in Racine, Wisconsin in 1990. Prior to that he was Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science for 15 years at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. In earlier years he held positions at North Dakota State University and at The Marshall Laboratories of DuPont in Philadelphia. He was responsible for establishing the academic polymer science programs at both North Dakota State and at UConn.

Fitch has been deeply involved in science education for many years. He was inducted into the Southeastern Wisconsin Educators Hall of Fame for his work in helping to establish the Education/Industry Science Alliance in that region under National Science Foundation sponsorship. He was the founding chairman of the National Industry Council for Science Education which later became a part of the Corporate Council for Mathematics and Science Education of the National Academy of Sciences. This involved senior technology officers of major technology-based corporations in supporting best practice in science education. He has served on the Management Team of the National Institute for Science Education, a research-oriented entity supported by a $10M grant from the National Science Foundation. Fitch was Chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Science Resources Center -- now the Smithsonian Science Education Center --, a joint project of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences. This last focusses on experiential learning in the early grades by means of the development and distribution of laboratory and instructional resources, leadership training at local school districts and regional centers, and the involvement of industry support.

The arts also figure prominently in Fitch’s current activities: he is former Chairman of the Board of Taos Talking Pictures, unique in that it had a strong educational component in media literacy; and he was Vice Chairman of the Board of the Taos Institute of Arts. He has just retired from the Board of the Taos Chamber Music Group. Avocational interests include skiing, hiking, alpine wildflower photography, and the collection of antique scientific instruments.


Please submit comments to me at: No comments are published without the author’s permission.

Oct. 18, 2012 

I wanted to comment on your folio and call your attention to an opinion by Linda Greenhouse in the NY Times today.  She was talking about the Supreme Court hearing over racial quotas in schools, etc. It dovetails with one of my concerns about how education is funded.  It made perfect sense before WWII to fund education through the community and states, with school boards dictating policy for the local schools.  But with the explosion of students, integration of total communities, religious zealotry, explosive innovation in all ways, it seems perfectly clear that local communities cannot make these decisions in a fair, balanced and innovative way.   I know the old saying, "I pay my taxes and I want my children taught the I want them taught."  That is pure stupid, bigoted and backward.  Anyway, your discussion should have something about funding and control.  I know how I feel about it, but I may be very short sighted and too far out there.  It must be addressed in a scientific and thoughtful way.  It could change everything.  You are damn thoughtful and scientific.  Keep me informed.  Going to love your blog.  Our education system is run through control by state and local taxes mainly.  I know the feds manipulate, and to the advantage of all students usually, with funding, but it is totally undermined by local control.  Look at Texas.  Also, it seems, with the severe divide in the country, that the Pres. will have tremendous power to do nothing or do something (if allowed).  I am just hoping for an education revolution before I die.

- Dodie Thomas, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

    Ms. Thomas is a former school teacher in the U.S.


The Manifesto does not deal with funding, rather with values. If our nation and its states and communities and families get our principles and standards straight, the funding will undoubtedly follow. And the situation will be more like the pre-war days that you mention, i.e. that it won’t matter so much whether the money comes from local or federal sources. Even under the best of circumstances this is not going to happen overnight. It will take many years or even decades. So we had better get started now.

I hope you have a very long life!  - rmf


Oct. 22, 2012

On your education manifesto, I agree with Dodie's comment about the way schools are funded in this country.  We have a funding apparatus that guarantees that the communities that need the most help get the least and vice versa.  Your solution that educational reform needs to start with the family is all very well and good but not very helpful in taking the problem forward toward a solution.  I would argue that there is a dialectic at work, where poor educational standards are perpetuated by people who have been educated poorly.  Furthermore, the trend is away from traditional family structures in this country, not toward them.  So, there have to be other strategies.  For many kids, school is (or could be) a refuge of stability and nurture away from the chaos of home life.  Often, kids drop out for reasons that are as simple as not having had the requisite immunization shots and not being able to get them because both parents are working and are not allowed to take time off from work to help their kids get the shots... assuming they have access to health care to begin with.  One could argue that it is not the role of schools to "raise" our children.  Yet, school is where they spend most of their time.  I think what is needed is to reassess the role of schools in our community as centers not just of learning, but as community centers, health clinics, and eateries, which address the whole child, not just his or her brain.  We all know how body and brain are connected, and how sometimes relatively simple interventions can make a huge difference in the ability of children to learn.  Unfortunately, with the funding structure and political priorities being what they are, local public schools are facing huge difficulties in even meeting basic standards, let alone addressing the kinds of concerns I listed above.  Your manifesto complains about the bloated bureaucracy that comes with federal funding but doesn't really offer any alternative.  I suggest that funding of schools should be mostly federal and rely much less on the local tax base, which penalizes poor people and drives up real estate costs in communities with good schools.  It's a crazy way to pay for education!

Chris Fitch, Single parent and artist and inventor.


Here I am a conservative. If we give even more responsibilities to the schools for the rearing of children, we shall have more bureaucracy interfering with how we should live and think, and at greater cost. Yes, we could get more help to poor families, but at what – intellectual – cost? Your plan still doesn’t get at the disease; it only treats the symptoms.

I’m working on my next offering that deals with how we might actually bring about a renaissance in the American family within a generation or at most, two. In the meantime, more federal and less state funding is OK by me.  - rmf


This article by Frederick Hess on school choice in ‘National Affairs’ has just come in, with an extensive analysis of why charter schools are a disappointment. This is just the first paragraph:

Does School Choice "Work"?


“These would seem to be dark days for the school-choice movement, as several early champions of choice have publicly expressed their disillusionment. A few years ago, the Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern — author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice — caused a stir when he backed away from his once-ardent support. Howard Fuller, an architect of Milwaukee's school-voucher plan and the godfather of the school-choice movement, has wryly observed, "I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn't been the deep, wholesale improvement in [Milwaukee Public Schools] that we would have thought." Earlier this year, historian Diane Ravitch made waves when she retracted her once staunch support for school choice in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "I just wish that choice proponents would stop promising that charters and vouchers will bring us closer to that date when 100 percent of all children reach proficiency," she opined in her blog. "If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric." Harvard professor and iconic school-voucher proponent Paul Peterson has characterized the voucher movement as "stalled," in part by the fact that many "new voucher schools were badly run, both fiscally and educationally," and in part because results in Milwaukee were not "as startlingly positive as advocates originally hoped." Likewise, Peterson argues, ‘the jury on charter schools is still out.’”


This article goes on for pages, but this is the gist of it. Like so many other innovations in schools, throwing money at it generally does not work. Why? Because we keep treating the symptoms instead of curing the disease. We have built this great edifice of an education system not on bedrock, but on an unstable foundation (the American Family), and it is crumbling.


Very apropos & timely!

Probably the biggest problem is that our government is in thrall to big corporations.

Same thing with education.  The testing corporations have taken over US education.  One case in point:  Aurora's [his daughter - rmf] tutor has shown that she is fine at her math skills, even above average.  Her SAT scores, however, are around 60 percentile.  So what are we now doing?  Focusing on the strategies:  decisions about when to omit a question, when to guess at a multiple-choice answer, the best structure/keywords to incorporate in an electronically-graded essay…  Clearly key skills for a fulfilling life.

The system is broken.  Time to move to Japan...

    - Dr. David H.A. Fitch, Prof. of Biology and Dean of Arts & Sciences, New York University Shanghai