American students do not place in the top 10 compared to the rest of the world. American kids rank about 23rd in math, 14th in reading, and 17th in science, according to 2010 statistics. Why are American kids such lousy students? A New York Times Editorial (and this writer) suggest the reasons below.
The top performing students now come primarily from Asia, Scandinavia, and Europe. In general, these countries took a cold, hard look at education after the devastation of World War II. Their infrastructure, industry, earning potential, and land had been largely destroyed by the war, and a few wise individuals foresaw the path needed for a future century.
While the American government helped returning GI’s buy houses, get some education, get jobs, and support families in the short run, they failed to ensure that, in the long run, the baby boomers’ children and grandchildren would be educated to compete in a future world. US education focused on sorting and selecting sheep and goats through the SAT process, an outmoded dinosaur still used in today’s nontraditional higher education world.
Education “experts” pushed inquiring minds into preselected career pathways by gender (guys had the brains for engineering, corporate control, and “good old boy” industry that would allow politics and wealth to play nice together), while girls were only smart enough to become teachers, nurses and librarians, and of course, stay home and have babies. Now, over 70 years and two generations later, American education is woefully waking up to the fact that females have brains and pushing STEM education.
No lessons were apparently learned from thousands of years of history, when men were away at war applying their own sorting and selecting process, and women were back home running successful for-profit corporations composed of fiefdoms, plantations, cities, kingdoms, and countries, while also raising families.
What are other countries doing?
Countries with high performing students took steps to ensure their citizens’ future security in the modern world with cutting edge knowledge and skills. The US had no direct continental land or industry destruction through WW II bombings (Pearl Harbor the exception), and perhaps false pride or lack of imagination took the place of nationalism, stubborn resistance, and underdog scrappiness other countries employed to rebuild better than before.
Eliminating the favoritism of wealth bias is one big step Finland takes. Finns first began to consider creating comprehensive schools that would provide a quality, high-level education for poor and wealthy alike. These schools stand out in several ways, providing daily hot meals; health and dental services; psychological counseling; and an array of services for families and children in need. None of the services are means tested. Moreover, all high school students must take one of the most rigorous required curriculums in the world, including physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, music and at least two foreign languages.
But the most important effort has been in the training of teachers. In 1979 the country decided to move preparation out of teachers’ colleges and into the universities, where it became more rigorous. By professionalizing the teacher corps and raising its value in society, the Finns have made teaching the country’s most popular occupation for the young. These programs recruit from the top quarter of the graduating high school class, demonstrating that such training has a prestige lacking in the United States.
In the US, low entry standards for teacher training programs ensure dumbing down of education by placing teachers in classrooms who have been held to standards so low, one could step over the bar, not reach for it. This writer has scored teacher candidate essays for many years and can attest to lack of skills in GUM (grammar, usage, and mechanics) that should have been drilled into elementary students’ minds. Teachers can’t write, so they can’t teach kids to write. Admission requirements for teaching programs at the State University of New York were raised in September, but only a handful of other states have taken similar steps.
Canadian education differs strikingly from American programs in funding methods. American school districts rely far too heavily on property taxes, which means districts in wealthy areas bring in more money than those in poor ones. State tax money to make up the gap usually falls far short of the need in districts where poverty and other challenges are greatest.
Three of Canada’s largest and best-performing provinces — Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario — have each addressed the inequity issue by moving to province-level funding formulas. As a recent report by the Center for American Progress notes, these formulas allow the provinces to determine how much money each district will receive, based on each district’s size and needs. The systems even out the tax base and help ensure that resources are distributed equitably, not clustered in wealthy districts. It is working, while American school districts trap urban kids in “concentrated student poverty.”
China’s educational system was largely destroyed during Mao Zedong’s “cultural revolution,” which devalued intellectual pursuits and demonized academics. Since his 1976 death the country has been rebuilding its education system at lightning speed. The flagship site is Shanghai, where its students placed first in the world in math, science and literacy on last year’s international exams.
One of its strengths is that the city has mainly moved away from an elitist system in which greater resources and elite instructors were given to favored schools, and toward a more egalitarian, neighborhood attendance system in which students of diverse backgrounds and abilities are educated under the same roof. The city has focused on bringing the once-shunned children of migrant workers into the school system. In the words of the O.E.C.D, Shanghai has embraced the notion that migrant children are also “our children” — meaning that city’s future depends in part on them and that they, too, should be included in the educational process. Funding was also redistributed to equate need to product.
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