Tag Archives: American prosperity

American Education: Being Number 1

31 Aug

Image courtesy of Photokanok / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As millions of American schoolchildren head back to class, they carry on their shoulders a heavy weight–and they don’t even know it.

Despite our collective and constant sense of being “Number 1” in every way, America is far from it in education. Both anecdotal and quantifiable evidence tell us this: America has fallen behind our worldwide peers in the race to be the best and the brightest.

It’s not a big leap to look at this reality and see how it impacts us from an economic and political perspective. This should be a wake up call for American parents and students. Here’s a story about jobs being off-shored because American workers were not skilled enough to fill them–a sad testament to our reality.

We are no longer the “smartest” country in the world. Not only that—we’re often not in the top 20. According to one of the most widely respected comparisons provided through PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), we are 31st in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. We may feel like Number 1, but we are not. (For a deeper look at 2009 PISA scores for reading, math, and science across all countries, see here.)

Here’s an important question: How badly do Americans want to be (and not just have the illusion of being) Number 1?

From my own experience, not badly enough. American students have sadly become smart enough to get by. I did it myself in high school, I have seen one of my children trying to do this (and not get away with it because my husband and I won’t let it pass), and I know that it happens for friends and other family members’ kids.

Teaching graduate-level classes at The Ohio State University, I work with students who operate at a high level of personal expectation and performance. Their dedication is infectious across the board. But this week I had separate conversations with three mainland Chinese students in my classes that really left an impression on me. Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, these students bring a work ethic and desire to succeed that American students don’t always have. They are hungry to learn.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that my American students are not hungry to learn. On the contrary, I’ve been lucky to work with highly motivated individuals. But across the general middle school, high school, and college-aged population of American students and parents, I do believe there is an element of taking education and achievement for granted. There’s a spirit of “We’ve always done well, so we always will.” This is dangerous thinking.

I don’t think that we want this badly enough–and we often don’t know what it will take to get back to being Number 1. For middle-class families, we are satisfied to get by, meanwhile spending more time on legitimate but less impactful leisure interests like sports and video games. For poor families, who have far less time to provide support to children’s education, we lower our educational expectations and provide little or no support to neutralize the effects of poverty. And for the “1%”–there’s little incentive since success can be purchased rather than earned through hard work.

Although this information is not new, too many American parents and students refuse to believe it. Or do anything about it. What will it take for us to be Number 1 again? The big shift is to make educational excellence a personal, family, and community priority. Here are some steps to get there:

  1. Set high expectations and hold ourselves to them. For example, I have one child who works hard for As–and earns them. I have another child that doesn’t work hard for As. I push each of them differently. The first needs support and encouragement to build confidence. And the second needs a cattle prod to go beyond “good enough”–and also build self-discipline for future performance.
  2. Pay attention to the new Common Core State Standards and support our students and schools to exceed them. The standards describe what students need to know and be able to do based on not random desires but the needs of businesses–our kids’ future employers. Their development and implementation has spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. The standards are about American economic livelihood–not politics. Don’t get sucked into extremist rhetoric that politicizes these common-sense expectations that will build our children’s and nation’s futures.
  3. Follow through on the promises we make to the next generation. This means doing what it takes educationally to compete in a global economy where the game has clearly changed. Being educated is not elitist. It is not uncool. It is above all a practical necessity in today’s world. As parents, at a minimum we need to push our students to study things we never had to–because this is what will get them to OUR standard of living–and then they must go beyond because this is what it will take to get us to Number 1 again.

What’s the lesson? Here’s a quote from The Economist that speaks volumes:

A big message is that national culture matters more than the structure of an education system. So the main lesson for policymakers may be to put education at the forefront of the story a nation tells about itself. Countries which do that with conviction and consistency can leapfrog the complacent. Outcomes can change rapidly: many students in the Asian “super league” countries have grandparents who are barely literate. Israel has also leapt up in maths and reading. Rankings and data do not tell the whole story. But they provide a useful spur.