Saturday, December 18, 2010

Why American high school education is so poor

I'm infuriated by a CNN opinion piece, in which a US politician pontificates about his pet educational theory.

... assessments of American 15-year-olds' capabilities in reading, math and science rank low among the 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which performed the study.

America's performance reveals an "average" showing, with dangerous disparities: The 113-point gap in math literacy between the United States and No. 1 spot-holder Shanghai-China is the equivalent of more than two school years of schooling, a statistic sure to ruffle America's economically competitive feathers.

There's more to the PISA results, however, than mere number or rank. The real lesson is less about economic competitiveness and more about a country's commitment to an equity-centered education.

. . .

The evidence presented by PISA is compelling. The commitment by the top-ranking countries to serve each child's needs translated not only into a fair and accessible education system, but one that clearly prepares its citizens with competitive 21st century knowledge and skills. Given equal educational opportunities to learn and achieve -- regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic level -- students in these top-performing countries were able to overcome barriers to achievement and excel at much higher rates.

We must do the same here in America. PISA measures of educational equity showed that impoverished and racially isolated schools in the United States simply did not measure up to essential conditions of equity.

Children attending such schools did not receive equal financing, equal access to qualified teachers, or adequate instructional resources. In fact, of the 34 OCED nations, America is one of only four countries that gives the advantage of access to more teachers to higher-income schools.

These facets of inequity in America's public schools have robbed students of their right to an equal, quality education. As a result, there is a disparity in academic performance that falls along economic and racial lines. For too many students in America, education is not the great equalizer, as it is purported to be.

These lessons regarding equity, provided by PISA's top performers, reflect a paradigm shift, not unlike the one I called for in the National Commission on Equity and Excellence, to be launched by the U.S. Department of Education in January 2011. Creating equity, and thus excellence, in our education system requires a plan of action that challenges our perception of who is capable of achieving at high levels, evaluates the individual needs of the students and their schools, and responds with strategic investment that ensures every child in America has access to qualified teachers, rigorous curriculum, tools and resources to meet high expectations, and more.

The takeaway is this: Prioritize equity in education. Our students deserve it. Our nation needs it. Our future depends on it.

There's more at the link - not that it's worth reading. It's just more of the same politically correct blathering.

The author couldn't possibly be more wrong if he tried! The problem with American high school education can be summed up in a few very simple points:

  1. Too many 'academic' credits are given for programs of no academic value whatsoever, such as drivers education, religion, home economics, etc. Such courses have their place, but not at the expense of core academic subjects.
  2. Too few core academic subjects are taught at a sufficiently demanding, challenging level. I've known Grade 8 students who had never memorized their multiplication tables. Dammit, these are fundamental to any honest grasp of mathematics, and should be instinctive! I'd learned them by Grade 3! What are schools doing if they aren't imparting the basics?
  3. There's too much political correctness and too little emphasis on working hard. Great stress is placed on everybody being 'equal', when that's fundamentally and obviously false to begin with. People are not equal - not in skills, not in innate ability, not in potential. In any given field, some will always be more able, more gifted, than others. If one doesn't identify such people and encourage them to develop their skills, one condemns them to the mediocrity of the average. The results are all too visible in our society.
  4. Too many education dollars are spent on non-educational priorities. Infrastructure, bloated salaries, buildings, political correctness, etc. - they all take priority over classroom needs. The Federal Government's Department of Education has the stated mission 'to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access'. To achieve this, the Federal Government will spend a total of about $157 billion in the 2010 fiscal year . . . and achieve no better than the mediocre results outlined above.
  5. Too many school programs, and too many teachers, are oriented towards a political and social agenda rather than real education. All need to be discontinued, at once if not sooner.

The reason foreign students so consistently do better is that their parents demand it of them; their schools teach them accordingly; and they're expected to work very hard and produce results, with serious consequences if they don't. Apply the same methods in the USA, and the problem will be solved.

Simple, isn't it?

Heaven preserve us from damnfool politicians and educators with an agenda!


EDITED TO ADD: Suzy, writing at Shining Pearls Of Something, has linked to this article in her own screed about the problems of the US education system. She has some interesting ideas. Go read.


cybrus said...

Great point, Peter. My cousin in an elementary school teacher and, as much as I love her, I feel sorry for the students she's "teaching".

Anonymous said...

One wonders if that we have several different parallel American educational experiences has some play? Do remember that we have a much less monolithic culture & educational society in America.

Many of our country's children are failures at Math, Science, Reading and other formal studies, but it can be argued that they have substituted life skills those of interested in education don't value - unfortunately many of these skills being anti-social or outright criminal.

Of the high ranked countries can we choose to believe that all of a certain age were actually tested?

It doesn't seem likely that those multi-generational non-people in the Laogai are afforded (or are suitable vessels) for a classic education. Or those in massive regions lacking basic infrastructure, much less schools?

The OECD has sometime even acknowledged this sort of massive bias in its other work.

Perhaps as Americans we're foolish to not separate our youth into educable, trainable and lower streams - and testing only the top cut.

Thank you for sharing nonetheless!

John Peddie (Toronto) said...

Part of the problem is that in North America, we look down on vocational education as demeaning, and resist streaming students into "academic" (profession bound) and "vocational" (future blue collar).

Not everyone is equipped to be a doctor or engineer, but Suzie Soccermom wants to believe her kid can. Equality of opportunity and all that.

So we dumb down the academic stream, letting every student ostensibly succeed in it, and making Suzie proud of her little future rocket scientist (a.k.a. McDonald's employee of the month).

Employers will consistently tell you that hiring trained technical employees is their biggest challenge.

Until we accord that training the respect it deserves, we'll continue with our current "academic" delusions.

The Swiss, Germans and others have much to teach us here.

Shell said...

There's nothing wrong with being "McDonald's Employee Of The Month". There's nothing demeaning about working at McDonald's, it's honest work. Now if you spend your life at that point, you've got a problem, but it ain't the job's fault.

Well said all through the piece, Peter. "Hear Hear!" and all that.

Anonymous said...

A modest proposal: 1) go back to the basics and teach math, English, geography/history from day one, with memorization and serious tests. 2) a three-tier education system after Grade 8 - college prep, technical, and manual vocational. But everyone continues with English composition and basic math, unless you are taking geometry, calculus et cetera. 3) English is the language all courses are taught in, unless it is a defined Spanish, Latin, German, French or whatever course. If you can't speak enough English to function in a classroom, you are not going to make it in most of the vocational world if you want to become a master of a trade. 4) Allow teachers to discipline students as necessary. 5) Fire or early retire teachers who can't master their subjects and communicate them to their students. Make teaching a respected career again.

Fly To Your Dreams said...

Public education in the U.S. will start improving when we abandon the insane notion that more money = more quality. I was homeschooled. Two of my three brothers were homeschooled. When we got out into the "real" world of collegiate education, we were running rings around our public-schooled counterparts. In dollar terms, I'm fairly certain that the combined, cumulative cost to educate all of us was less than the cost to educate one student through four years of public high school. Neither one of our parents had (or have) a four-year degree from anywhere either.

More recently, my wife and I are beginning the same system with our first son, now in Kindergarten (a year ahead of when the public education system here in Washington would take him, thank you very much). He can read (phonetically) most 3- and 4-letter words, count to 100, do very basic addition and subtraction, and knows the basic earth science concepts that we've taught him so far. In short, he already exceeds the published state standards. Once again, we're doing it on less than 1/10th the expenditure for a single kindergarten student in Washington's public schools, and once again, without a single education degree present. While my wife and I did go to college, she got an A.S. as a Medical Office Admin, and I got a B.S. in Computer Science.

Our children will almost certainly be educated without access to "equal financing, qualified teachers, or whatever the state considers adequate instructional resources." I'm equally confident that they too will come out well ahead of their peers.

LabRat said...

To highlight a distinction that is present in your post already, Americans also have a very curious cultural obsession with innate ability, especially in math and science. In China, Japan, and any other Asian nation that is currently beating us like a drum in this field, math isn't something to ponder one's talent in, it's something you work hard to acquire ability in because otherwise you're a lazy failure.

I won't say there's not differences in innate math abilities, but I sure as hell know students that do a lot of math do far better than those who don't.

Bob said...

The original poster blathered about that we need to spend more money for more educational opportunities. we spend more money and get less for our dollar than any other industrial country. Our public education is geared toward a political agenda( I have proctored tests for my sons elementary school and all the test are geared to provoke a certain response to support an agenda( go green) or go diversity. People arn't equal and until we get past that marxist notion, it will get worse. We as a society will get dumber and dumber as the smarter ones start dying off through age and attrition.