The American Educational System Is Just Fine

The first international academic test was given in 1964, and American students came in almost last. That was almost 50 years ago and ever since then, it’s quite possible that not one good thing has been said about the American educational system. In fact, quite the opposite: the general consensus is that education in the US is abysmal, that Japan, Korea, Russia and China are producing super-students that will eventually take over the world, and that almost nothing about the way we teach children is good. But after 50 years of this, there’s quite a lot of history to reflect on and USA Today has an article with evidence to the contrary. It starts with this quote from 1983:

Our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. … The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. — From A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Report, created by Reagan’s Secretary of Education

And there’s the first clue that in reality, nothing’s wrong with our educational system: thirty years later, America still leads the world in Nobel Prizes and scientific papers, its university system is the envy of the world, and standardized test scores keep increasing. Since the 1980s, Silicon Valley has become a global force that has quite literally changed the world — most dramatically via its role in the Arab Spring — and the growing list of discoveries, innovations and accomplishments shows no signs of slowing down.


Arab protester sending a Tweet


So how do we reconcile that reality with the numbers shown on international standardized tests, in which America is consistently embarrassed? The crux of the matter are the notions of freedom and opportunity: in many countries, especially the Asian ones, students have little choice but to do well, lest they bring great shame to their families, or worse, beatings on themselves. Of course, children are the same everywhere and since everyone can’t be a genius, schools in those countries gear their curriculums toward something everyone can master: memorization. Armed with the simplest of tools, repetition, any child can memorize entire books of history, science and mathematics, then regurgitate facts and formulas on standardized tests and appear smart in the same way a computer does.

But in the United States, education is largely up to the student and their parents. The opportunity to do well is available, and so is the freedom to fail. If a kid wants to devour encyclopedias and become a math wiz, he can. If he wants to sleep through high school and get a job at Wal-mart, that’s also fine: everyone doesn’t have to be MIT material. As a result, American education focuses less on rote memorization — which, by the way, will be useless in a world filled with Siri, Wolfram Alpha, and Watson — and more on critical thinking skills involving creativity and problem solving. (The No Child Left Behind Act is a step backward exactly for this reason.) And if you do well and work hard, the sky’s the limit: last week, a homeless kid got accepted into Harvard, thanks to his dedication.


Watson devastated his human opponents on Jeopardy!


Not that higher education is very important to success: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college. They had good ideas, creativity, a great work ethic and the drive to get past obstacles and ended up generating mountains of money, hiring a lot of people who buried their heads in books and did well in school, and outsourcing a lot of work to China — work that could easily be automated, if only Chinese workers cost more than robots.

And that leads to the trillion dollar question: do we want a nation of human robots, whose jobs will soon be automated out of existence, or do we want a nation of Steve Jobses, who feel stifled by onerous school work? The American educational system has always been geared toward the latter: it gives opportunity to everyone, it rewards students who want to do well, and gives them the freedom to make their own choices and mistakes — because that’s also how the world will treat them as adults. Education should prepare children for the real world, and what matters in the real world is drive, creativity and the ability to solve complex problems. The ability to take tests, on the other hand, has never made anyone a billionaire.

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From USA Today, via Slashdot and Melinda


  1. The Problem With Required High School Classes | Apt46 - pingback on October 19, 2012 at 5:30 pm

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