Tag Archives: education

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.

Eighth Grade’s No Longer Good Enough

9 Aug

When my grandmother was 14, she finished school, at eighth grade. Her mother had just died of tuberculosis, and being the only child on a farm her hands were needed for work. Two years later, she got married, and at the age of 17 she had her first of seven children.

I was thinking about my grandmother’s reality, and fully realizing how different it is from my own. There’s a picture of her at 16, with my grandfather, beside an old Model-T. It was the 1930s, and they look a lot like Bonnie and Clyde. Somewhat rakish, and definitely adventurous. Grandma had attitude.

And she also had substance. If she’d been born more recently, my grandmother would have earned her Ph.D. She was a very smart woman–intellectual, despite a humble upbringing and spending most of her life raising children and working in the house. After they were all grown up, she began researching the family genealogy and contacted people from around the world to piece it together. She did extensive research at the OSU libraries during the early 1960s, sifting through county records without the benefit of digitized information.

Grandma also had an incredible imagination and was known for her detailed stories about her family’s history in the Salt Creek Valley, along the border of Ross and Vinton Counties in Southeast Ohio. All of the stories had elements of truth, along with varying degrees of embellishment depending upon the day. They held nuggets of family history, but they also made for good entertainment. There’s a volume that my aunts put together, after transcribing hours of Grandma’s storytelling, and it’s more than 100 pages. I had the pleasure of reading from it as part of her eulogy when she passed a few years ago.

None of Grandma’s children, my aunts and uncles, went to college. In fact, neither of my parents did, but since I loved school they encouraged me to do well there and always made it clear they’d find a way to support me in earning a degree. Which they did, and not without difficulty. My mother has always been a reader, and my dad has a lot of my grandma’s innate intellectualism (with lots of blue-collar flair). They provided me with the self-confidence and resources to “make it.”

The difference between my life and my grandmother’s has to do with EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY AND AN ETHIC OF SELF-SUFFICIENCY. If her family hadn’t lost it all in the Great Depression (i.e., if they’d had anything to fall back on), if she’d married and had children later in life (i.e., birth control) , she’d have finished high school. And perhaps those additional four years of education would have given her the springboard to support one or more of her kids in going to college.

It’s very clear to me, having this reality just two generations behind me, that opportunity for success is not something easily accessible to everyone. So often, it requires several generations of success to launch new generations up to a certain level of affluence. Even if there is a chance to make disruptive change from poverty, in circumstances where resources are scarce there’s a strong encouragement to take care of others (like my grandmother did) rather than oneself. Or to achieve less success than you could find for yourself, by bringing up others with you along the way.

This is why I have to laugh when I hear people talking about how in America you can go as far as you want to go. Yes, it’s true that here there is the freedom as an individual to make great progress,  more so than in any other country, but there’s a cost to it. Not everyone is willing to leave behind responsibilities to support family members needing help. It’s much easier for some than others to have that single-minded focus on success. You have to be able to afford it, in terms of money and social norms. In a way, it’s about being able to afford being selfish. That’s what we aspire to, as Americans. (Is this a good thing?)

I often wonder why people in my demographic buy luxury cars (even if used) for their teenagers and don’t ever expect them to get jobs. Is success as easy as simply wanting it? Are we raising a generation that doesn’t know how to work hard, just to be able to drive a beater car? Or even–gasp–pay for gas to drive the parents’ car?

Not everyone in the “upwardly mobile” set in America is (a) selfless enough or (b) self-sufficient enough to be able to truly make it on their own. Even when upper middle-class kids work in high school and college, typically it’s to pay for extras (going out) and not to contribute to the overall resources of a larger family. Their families pay for their tuition, food, clothing and other necessities, keeping them from truly knowing what it means to sacrifice and make their own way.

So when I read stories like this one, from the thoughtful Atlantic (September 2011 issue), I wonder what level of education my kids will have to attain in order to be successful. Is the middle class truly doomed? That’s a lot of people, just like my own family. It’s interesting to see how distanced we’re becoming from the upper class in terms of earning power, despite higher education.

And, I wonder, will this next generation define success in other terms, not related to money or affluence, but instead related to happiness and personal/community fulfillment? Was the platform that my grandmother created for me destined to help a new generation to hit the reset button on what it means to “go far?” Will hitting an economic flat-line have a more positive effect on our overall well-being?