November 6th, 2011
08:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Fix education, restore social mobility

Editor's Note: Learn more about the future of education with the special edition of GPS, Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education.

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

I've been thinking about Occupy Wall Street, which is now occupying a number of other cities in America. What is it really about? The protesters don't like bank bailouts; they feel the 99% have been hard done-by and they're protesting what they see as unprecedented inequality. But America has always had more inequality than many countries.

I think underlying their sense of frustration is despair over a very un-American state of affairs: A loss of social mobility. Americans have so far put up with inequality because they felt they could change their own status. They didn't mind others being rich, as long as they had a path to move up as well. The American Dream is all about social mobility - the sense that anyone can make it.

TIME magazine's Rana Foroohar has a great cover story this week that highlights that social mobility in American is declining. She points out that if you were born in 1970 in the bottom one-fifth of our socio-economic spectrum, you had only a 17% chance of making it into the upper two-fifths. Data show that its much easier to climb the socio-economic ladder in many parts of Europe. Rana points out that while nearly half of American men with fathers in the bottom fifth of the earning curve remain there, only a quarter of Danes and Swedes and only 30% of Britons do. The American dream seems to be thriving in Europe more than it is here at home.

What happened and what can we do?

There are a number of reasons why we find ourselves in this predicament - but the most important of them is how much we have lagged behind on education. No other factor is as closely linked to upward mobility. Education is the engine of mobility. And for all its current troubles, many countries in Europe - especially in northern Europe - have done a much better job providing high quality public education, particularly for those who are not rich or upper middle class.

We talk a lot about the genius of Steve Jobs these days, and justifiably, because he was a genius. But he also grew up in an environment that helped. He graduated from high school in 1972 at a time when the California public school system was ranked first in the country and American public education was the envy of the world. The public school he went to in Cupertino was high quality, with excellent programs in science as well as the liberal arts. Today, California's public schools are a disaster, and the state spends twice as much on prisons as it does on education.

So how do we fix our education system? Watch my GPS special tonight. It's called "Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education" and it airs at 8pm and 11pm Eastern.

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Topics: Education • Fareed's Take • From Fareed • GPS Show

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soundoff (617 Responses)
  1. Ross Freshwater

    I loved this show, and found most of it spot on.

    My one beef, and I figured that if anyone would pick up on it, it's Zakaria – which tells me either you have to have been a teacher to understand this, or Zakaria had to work so darn hard in an elite Indian school that he's blind to it:

    KIPP, while successful, works its teachers to the bone. Those guys work. easily, at the very minimum 60 hours per week. They are always on call with their cell phones if a kid needs help with their homework.This means most teachers there last a few years before they decide they really do want a life outside their job. Also, kids who don't fit the mold can be asked to leave. These two elements make this model unsustainable on a large scale.

    The U.S. will need to hire many more teachers to bring their student loads down to a manageable size. And pay them on par with engineers and lawyers. Public high school teachers today often have 125-175 students on their semester rosters. While their private counterparts have 75. I had 187 one year as a teacher in Chicago. There is a physical limit to the number of 5-page papers a person can grade well. An online curriculum with teachers as guides on the side as opposed to sages on the stage might help with this a bit, but a teacher's total student load still greatly effects the number of students they can educate well.

    November 7, 2011 at 7:33 am | Reply
  2. AM Tattam

    I can add to your search for the reasons to the falls in the US educational system.

    I believe one of the major criteria for excellence was surrendered to the publishing houses for educational material which, in the1980s, required purchasing books every year. When you turn one aspect of the educational system over to the hands of a profit making business such as the publishing houses, then you get inferior products in the form of school books that become obselete every 2 years or so. You can only imagine the costs to the state for their contracts with these companies.

    My daughter has been educated in the swiss public school system. At the university level she has now encountered her first american text books for psychology. Overall she feels they are written for the mentally slow. They are just full of insignificant details and are very disorganized. Written for grade school students was her overall comment. So how can you have any system of excellence if the textbooks are of an inferior level? We need to return to the universities to produce our text books especially for the first 12 years of school.

    November 7, 2011 at 8:06 am | Reply
  3. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    The GOP solution: Turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Unemployed, and Gay people into slaves. Then whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Employed, and Straight. Or until they are dead. Then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military.

    November 7, 2011 at 11:48 am | Reply
  4. Peter Culp


    It appears you need to check your facts about education spending in California.


    K-12 Education 34,302,000,000
    Higher Education 10,248,000,000
    Corrections and Rehabilitation 9,821,000,000

    November 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  5. Y. B., Canada

    Fareed, that was a great piece of journalism on education! The first priority is to recognize the problem; the second is to solve the problem – not deny it. The dumbing down of the US has been a 40 year effort and it will take a long time to correct. Hopefully, there are enough bright people left to do this. The world has been noticing and it is difficult to hear, but Americans once were a great nation and can be again. Start studying and reading; get lean and disciplined like many other nations have been doing. Good luck to you.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  6. Not Bob

    Fareed is a tool of the establishment, this translates directly into support for more money wasted on an out of control education sector. Unjustified tuition costs will not be lowered as a response to more government intervention as Obama announced last week. It will only cause tuition to rise, the very definition of moral hazard! His article also fails to address the outsourcing of jobs to countries like China and India that are graduating 50 million plus BA's per year mostly in the sciences. Upward mobility requires that the degree you recieve has a reasonable chance of landing you a high salaried position yet that is not the case any longer.

    November 7, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Reply
    • Nelba

      Good, but you need to go a step farther. Add to your last sentence: "Upward mobility requires that the degree you recieve has a reasonable chance of landing you a high salaried position yet that is not the case any longer . . . BECAUSE those jobs are not being created.

      November 7, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  7. abbie

    i like how this piece ends with a commercial. "watch me on tv, to find out how to fix this........."

    November 8, 2011 at 2:39 am | Reply
  8. Karur

    Fareed, your programme was excellent. But,the decline in education standards in the US must be looked at in the context of the lost dream. The greatness of the US during the last century came from Americans dreaming of the future and now we are dreaming of the past. Students and Teachers will act differently, if the dreams are re-created. One solution could be to jointly develop dreams with Asia and students are allowed to participate in this process by physically be relocated to Asia. The logistics cannot be insurmountable because the opposite happened fifty years ago

    November 8, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  9. mark o. david

    America has had it's day.Every empire ends.What ever reason you want to apply it does not matter.The world is moving beyond one major consumer and americans should realize that the wealthy have won the race to the pot of gold,capitol control,and nothing will ever be like it was.Enjoy being poor!

    November 8, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  10. Goodguy1

    We have to get rid of home economics, baby care classes, most electives. Use those hours for math and science labs after the class and study hours for homework.

    November 8, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  11. Manuk

    I think that the whole education system in America, both primary, secondary and college needs to be reformed.

    1) Colleges offer more than several dozens of majors, however, only several of those majors help students to be successful in the job market, specifically those majors that include: math, accounting, science, engineering, pharmacology, medicine and computers, while all others are a waste of time and money. There are also too many irrelevant courses that students need to take before they actually start working on their major. As a result, it takes majority of students longer to graduate and with higher debt than otherwise with knowledge that is not needed and often without any skills pertaining to their studies.

    2) Secondary schools often spend money on things that are fancy, rather than necessary for effective teaching, for example electronic white boards. What's wrong with using regular white boards? They cost less and occupy less space in the classroom than electronic white boards. I remember learning just fine when teachers were using simple chalk and chalk boards, and simple overhead projectors.

    3) There are many reasons why many kids from minority groups do not learn well in school and have higher drop out rates and higher crime rates (at least in Los Angeles area) compared to everybody else. Among all reasons, there is one that isn't ever mentioned. Family's socio-economic status, poverty, location of residence, illiteracy of parents of those students, no discipline at home, and often broken families, domestic abuse and child abuse that negatively affects kids' academic performance and their outlook on life.

    I believe that all the necessary changes can be made to improve education in public schools and colleges as long as there is a political will to do so.

    November 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  12. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    wii dun ned to raz taxiz fer skools. wii kin bii hom skoold lyk uz dun sowth. doz demokrates unly wunt to raz taxiz fer skools n rodes n watr n stuf. doz demokrates wunt 2 tayk awhey r gunz n jezuz 2. ger republikingz!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    November 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  13. education graveyard

    Here is a testament to the poor quality of education in this country. I work for a major hospitality company and most of my coworkers's don't understand basic math. For instance; I asked to confirm that we had 60 linear ft of a product, when I ordered it I said 20 linear yds, my coworker wasn't skilled enough to understand how to convert these units. The same goes with conversion between feet and inches, centimeters and inches. When I complain about the poor quality of employees we have, I am told this is the best we can get. I frankly don't believe that so many people are incapable of learning, so what happened? It is shocking that so many people can graduate from high school and college, then achieve a senior position with a company traded on the stock exchange and they can't do the same math that a fourth grader can?

    November 9, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Reply
    • Chris Stewart

      I find this hard to believe. What was the education level of that person?

      November 13, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
  14. Miriam

    The problem is with our underlying philosophy of education and with our economic system. We graduate many students from college with excellent degrees, and many can't find decent jobs. In this country a "decent job" is defined as one that provides good health care coverage, and people don't leave those kinds of jobs to start small companies where they have to face that burden themselves. Additionally, we, unlike Europe and Asia, have a public school system which puts most of the mediocre students into a liberal arts mode, rather than a technical training mode. In Europe and Asia, liberal arts studies are primarily for those who are of a caliber to get PhD., not simply those who don't like math. The latter are trained to become artisans and skilled workers.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  15. Mike White

    A key element in making our education system successful was missed in this report. While the program spoke to the importance that South Korean parents place on their children's education (and it was implied that Finland's parents must also greatly value their children's education), it did not emphasize the importance and impact of the parents in the childs successful education. Parents who show they value education by spending time going over homework, by partnering with the teacher can make a huge difference in the quality of the childs education. The best teachers in the world cannot lift a defeated child who no longer cares with parents who are uninvolved and do not value education. It must be a good teacher in partnership with interested involved parents that can teach a child the lifelong value of learning. This 3-legged stool must start with good teachers but must have committed interested parents who value education. This combination will establish the 3rd leg to excellence.....a student who wants and enjoys learning.

    November 18, 2011 at 7:54 am | Reply
  16. spiider

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    December 16, 2011 at 6:40 am | Reply
  17. Kate

    If the USA had a system such as the Kahn Academy for grade school and high school, we would solve a lot of our educational problems in this country. If our youth could learn at home via a computer using simple instructions to teach subjects and they could learn at their own pace; we could eliminate so much expense with teachers and schools that we could provide free education, computer and internet access to all our students. Teachers then could be utilized for just students needing extra help to move to advanced levels. This make so much sense to me; probably too much sense to actually achieve this.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
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