In today’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman has some great thoughts on America’s education crisis.  Education is what fuels our work force to be smarter, more skilled and more productive.  If we’re dealing with a breakdown in education today, we should expect an underprepared work force for tomorrow. 

I don’t mean that everyone needs to pursue a college degree, but I do mean that every American child should learn to read and write and do math.  Friedman says we should do this by focusing on the quality of teachers, rewarding effective teachers with better pay, and generally elevating the profession in the eyes of the public.  I’ve written about this before; it’s a sad day in America when teaching is not regarded as one of the most respected professions.

I agree with Friedman that when schools make teaching a more competitive job (by avoiding tenure policy and using performance-based pay) everyone benefits – students and teachers.  But I couldn’t agree with him more on his final point, about the third and most important player in education: parents.

All good ideas, but if we want better teachers we also need better parents – parents who turn off the TV and video games, make sure homework is completed, encourage reading and elevate learning as the most important life skill. The more we demand from teachers the more we have to demand from students and parents. That’s the Contract for America that will truly ensure our national security.

No one should have to convince parents (or even remind parents) of the central role they play in the education of their children.  Our nation is founded on the principles of freedom and individual liberty.  But if we expect that kind of liberty, we should also expect the responsibilities that go with it.  Ultimately, good teaching will not single-handedly save our educational system.

Friedman pointed to South Korea, saying that the country had renamed “teachers” as “nation builders” to put emphasis on their role.  But good teaching is no replacement for good parenting.  The true nation builders are the men and women everywhere who, after a long day at work, might take the extra 15 minutes required to read a book with their young child, or review the homework of their high school student. 

I think a lot of working adults (including myself) would learn from some of today’s more advanced high school assignments.  But it’s not the parents’ knowledge level that matters – it’s the message they send to their children that education is valuable.