Parents are failing the education test

Signs of disrespect for education bode ill for our future, says Fortune's Geoff Colvin.

By Geoff Colvin, Fortune senior editor-at-large

(Fortune Magazine) -- In a world of rapidly rising standards and economic rewards for knowledge, are some American parents actually hostile to education? In my travels I'm seeing evidence that the answer is yes. It's just bits and pieces so far but worth our attention, because in a globalizing economy, with the question of the U.S.'s competitiveness feeling more urgent all the time, such a shift would be puzzling - and very bad news.

I was talking some time ago with a group of school superintendents from Maryland. The dominant mood was frustration - a sense that they weren't making the progress with our kids that they wanted to. A few of the superintendents surprised me by saying they had received complaints from parents who were angry because their kids were being made to learn algebra. Basic objection: "What do they need algebra for? It's hard!" Just a few days ago I was talking to a middle-school vice principal, this time in Nebraska. She reported the same thing: parents angry over kids having to learn algebra.

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Maybe that strikes you the way it did me - as simply unbelievable. Perhaps it's the education industry trying to blame others for its own failures. But I don't think so. These school administrators didn't seem eager to report their experiences and didn't do so until we'd been talking about U.S. education for some time. More important, their reports fit with other signs I've noticed suggesting that some folks really don't like schools and education - and are surprisingly willing to let the world know how they feel.

We've all seen those bumper stickers that say MY KID IS AN HONOR STUDENT AT XYZ MIDDLE SCHOOL. But have you seen the stickers that say MY KID CAN BEAT UP YOUR HONOR STUDENT? Then there are the kids' T-shirts with education-hostile messages. I saw one that says CONSERVE ENERGY - SLEEP IN CLASS. Another says DETENTION GETTER. I saw another that says FOR SALE: TEXTBOOKS AND SCHOOL SUPPLIES - NEVER USED.

Of course, kids have always disliked school, and sporting clothing with provocative messages is nothing new. But all the T-shirts I saw were quite small, meaning kids weren't buying them, parents were. Maybe the parents thought the shirts would be funny or cute, but what's their real message? It couldn't be clearer: Education isn't important. School is boring.

It's one thing to hold such views, quite another to proclaim them on your car or, of all places, on your kids' clothing - and that's what I see as new and especially troubling. Presumably only a minority of parents have contempt for education, but until recent years you just wouldn't send your kid out of the house in one of those T-shirts.

Nor would you complain to school administrators that your kids were getting too much education. Now parents evidently feel it's safe to do so. We may comfort ourselves by supposing that most parents still want a great education for their kids, but the fact remains that for most of our history, publicly disrespecting school was simply not okay. Now it is.

Let's be clear about what's at stake. America's living standard hasn't been going up during the past two to three years, which is odd, since the economy has been growing at a healthy clip, inflation and interest rates have been tame, unemployment has been low and productivity has been rising. The explanation from many economists is that in an increasingly global labor market, ever more U.S. workers are too expensive; workers on the other side of the world can do the same work at least as well for a lot less money.

A steadily rising living standard has been vital to America's political and social stability. To keep that standard rising, our workers have to be worth what they cost in a global labor market. The only way they can do that is by getting an education that's world-class and constantly improving. The education that many U.S. kids get today is neither.

A lot of worried people are working hard to pass laws or identify practices to improve education. But it may be that the most important factor shaping our economy's future will be the cumulative effect of what we all do individually, each as a tiny element of the American culture, deciding and expressing just how valuable we think education really is.  Top of page