USA, USA! Hooray, hooray! We’re No. . . . er, 24.

Well, actually, that’s only in math. In science, we’re way better. We’re No. 17 in that core subject. Isn’t that swell?

Just look at our front page this month. I don’t think I can remember a juxtaposition of top stories that bore more eloquent testimony to the gloomy condition of education in the good old US of A. On the right (side of the front page), we have our President Bush. His bold move: Veto federal funds for education. On the left side, we have discouraging word of America’s standing in math and science among the community of industrialized nations.

I know. It’s a brand new year, and I probably shouldn’t start out 2008 like a Mr. Frowny Face, but really! Where is the outrage about this national shame?

Digression 1–consider this: People are quick to get their knickers in a knot when Britney Spears exits a limousine in an unlady-like manner. Oh, about that, they can fulminate for weeks. (Did you know–just to belabor this for a moment–that the No. 1 search conducted on Yahoo in 2007 was for

. . .you guessed it . . . dear Britney? And then you wonder why I pout.)

But America, except for education associations, is virtually mute when our president recoils at the prospect of kicking in a little extra for education. Mr. Bush can cheerfully authorize $471 billion for the Department of Defense (and that’s just the “non-war” spending), but with a flash of his terrible, swift veto pen, Bush lays low a proposed five percent increase in spending for the U.S. Department of Education.

Not that I think more dough for DOE is education’s golden panacea, mind you. But a lot more funding for the education department might mean a few more dollars would actually make their way down to the schools and classrooms where the money could really make a difference.

America is being left in the dust on science and math, but money alone isn’t the answer. As some simply love to say, “We can’t just throw money at this problem.”

Digression 2: Did you ever notice, as social critic Jonathan Kozol once observed, that nobody ever uses that “throw-money” line in connection with, say, weapons systems or oil exploration? Nobody shouts, “We can’t just throw money at the Pentagon. We can’t just throw money at this energy crisis.”

All right. I get it. A society has many needs. But, you know, maybe we should try a dollar dump for education sometime. For ten years, say–let’s all just “throw money” at our schools and colleges!

But, no–of course, money alone isn’t the answer. What is?

Well, consider again the characteristics of education in Finland. That’s the No. 1 country currently spanking Uncle Sam in science education. What does Finland have that we don’t?

It’s right there on our front page, folks, in black and white. Read all about it:

“National standards, a high regard for teachers and the teaching profession, more equitable distribution of resources, autonomy at the school level to implement reforms, and opportunities to personalize instruction . . .”

As Managing Editor Dennis Pierce remarked the other day–for the USA, those characteristics have been turned on their head: We have no national standards, just federal “accountability.” Teachers and teaching are, if not disrespected, certainly not revered. The best resources invariably flow to the wealthiest; the poor are always with us, out in the cold. Individual schools have little autonomy to implement reform, and personal instruction is straight-jacketed by relentless adherence to what’s on those mandated high-stakes tests.

Blaming President Bush for all this is a popular pastime in some circles. And heaven knows, that’s a good place to start. But it’s too cheap a shot. I think the blame belongs to all of us. And if that’s true, perhaps the solution resides in the same place.

In Dante’s Inferno, the first ring of hell is reserved for those nameless, faceless souls who never protested, never took a stand, never took action, never believed. Like the pilgrim in the poem, we have awakened to find ourselves in a “dark wood of error.”

We’re down. But it’s time to begin the ascent.

Today is 2008, and the hour for fresh resolutions is at hand. So let us resolve, one to another, that this is the year we’ll find a way out of our dismal wood. If we don’t do it soon, we’re condemning our children, our country, and ourselves. Let’s tell our would-be leaders (and ourselves) that the Florentine choice hasn’t changed: You take action, damn it. Or you go straight to hell.