Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Most Americans don't see the connection between educating our children and the national security needs of the country.

That wasn't true six decades ago when the Soviet Union launched the first orbiting earth satellite, Sputnik, into space. Americans were stunned: they thought the United States was far ahead of the USSR in science and space exploration and were now watching a tiny illuminated globe transiting the sky during evening hours, knowing it was not America's.

Nikita Khrushchev, Moscow's boisterous leader, hailed this achievement as proof that his communist system was superior to America's capitalism. He promised that his country would win the global power competition with the U.S.

In response, the Eisenhower administration and Congress quickly enacted the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which provided half a billion dollars to universities and research institutes to improve teaching and research in science amd technology. The objective was to expand the number of Americans studying subjects that are relevant to the country's defense needs and support institutes whose goal was to make the United States the leader in space exploration.

In 2015, America is falling behind not one, but several countries in the number of young people being educated in math, science, and engineering. These include Japan, China, India, South Korea, and numerous European countries whose educational systems promote study in these technical area.

Why is America falling behind in the number of qualified people to fill the jobs that industry requires? Is John Whitehead (Daily Progress Jan. 25) correct, when he says "Our education system is abysmal." He asserts that the United States spends more per student than most of the world but ranks 36th "when it comes to match, reading and science."

Critics cite two major reasons for this state of affairs. First, control of public education in the U.S. is the responsibility of states, not the federal government. Within the fifty states, local communities decide who supervises the schools and hires principals and teachers. Funding comes largely from local budgets, with state legislatures supplementing the funding. In recent years, Federal funds support school lunch programs and similar initiatives. Those who favor larger federal involvement in the public schools contend there needs to be a more uniform requirement for graduation from high school in order that employers may have confidence that graduates have the needed skills to perform their work.

The reality is that today, unlike a generation or more ago, many high schools do not perform that basic task, with the result that junior colleges are increasingly asked to provide the training where high schools fail to do so.

A second, related, argument heard is that teachers' unions have become an impediment to reforms that would make public schools far more productive in training students for jobs. In Washington, D.C., former public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee achieved some success in revising tenure regulations that made it it easier to dismiss incompetent teachers and put underperforming ones on probation. But her valiant efforts were vigorously fought by local teachers unions.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently vowed to fight the teachers union and change the rules on replacing poor teachers and rewarding excellent ones. He too faces strong opposition from entrenched unions.

In Virginia, the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests have stimulated opposition because some parents and some school boards think they are too difficult and reduce time for other, less rigorous, studies. The issue is clear: whether to reduce the standards to fit some students; needs, or to keep the standards and do a better job of preparing students to achieve them.

If the United States intends to remain a major power in the 21st century, it needs a far better trained work force than we are now producing. American high schools should be more rigorous in requirements for graduation.

Students who want to pursue technical training instead of a college-oriented course should be provided the opportunity to spend part of their high school time in technical training classes. That collaboration is currently taking place between Charlottesville and Albemarle high schools in cooperation with Piedmont Community College. These plans deserve full public support.

File last modified on Monday, 02-FEB-2015 10:51 AM EST

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