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American Education: Still A Long Way To Go

The latest OECD report on education results in rich countries is out, and as usual there is little good news for the US.  The Economist tells all:

Many of the 20 leading economic performers in the OECD doubled or tripled their education spending in real terms between 1970 and 1994, yet outcomes in many countries stagnated—or went backwards. Educational performance varies widely even among countries that spend similar amounts per pupil. Such spending is highest in the United States—yet America lags behind other developed countries on overall outcomes in secondary education…

So what are the secrets of success? Though there is no one template, four important themes emerge: decentralisation (handing power back to schools); a focus on underachieving pupils; a choice of different sorts of schools; and high standards for teachers…

Of the four chief elements of schools reform, diversity of supply is by far the most striking. From New York to Shanghai to Denmark, schools free of government control and run by non-state providers are adding quality to the mix. To date, they seem most successful where the state has been unwilling or unable to make a difference.

As a young sprout I first saw the differences in American and British education first hand when after a little more than five years in US public schools I went to the sixth grade in the UK.  To my shock, sixth grade kids there were starting Latin, Algebra and French, to say nothing of history classes much more challenging than our compulsory year’s study of North Carolina history in the Old North State.  The kids in my UK classes didn’t seem any smarter or by nature harder working than my friends in the US, but kids often rise to the challenges set before them, and the Brits and the Americans at that time had very different ideas about what sixth graders were capable of doing.

I don’t think there is a single cure-all for American schools.  Like the Economist, I think we are looking at a lot of small solutions rather than centrally planned or mandedated big ones. The charter school movement is one helpful response – but it isn’t the sole solution. Utilizing technology cuts outdated corners and keeps innovation at the forefront. Improving the quality of teaching is equally important. Teachers unions that protect and institutionalize poor performance are hurting students, but rather than unremitting teacher bashing what we need is to produce and then nurture, cherish and reward good teachers. The Economist also reports:

An emphasis on better teacher quality is a common feature of all reforms. Countries like Finland and South Korea make life easier for themselves by recruiting only elite graduates, and paying them accordingly… America has experimented at state level with merit pay and payment by results, but often in the teeth of opposition from the teachers’ unions.

The teacher unions as presently organized are more often part of the problem than part of the solution.  But ultimately the system won’t work without strong, experienced teachers who have the respect of their students and of the community.  We don’t need a nation of teacher-automatons teaching to tests devised by Washington bureaucrats; we need a nation of teachers and principals who want to teach, know how to teach and have the freedom to teach as they judge best — and when they succeed, they should be well rewarded for important work.

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  • Luke Lea

    Good public schools have never been much about money, or class size. It is more about good students, good teachers, and a good curriculum. We seem to have none of those.

    Of the three, a good curriculum would seem the easiest to rectify. It means good textbooks in the right subjects. Sounds easy. However, read Richard Feynman’s report on his experience selecting science textbooks for the State of California. It was totally depressing.

    I propose that rich philanthroposts like Bill Gates, if they really want to make a difference in this area, sponsor national contests to see who can write the best textbook in various fields — American history, basic arithmetic, etc. Entrants would be restricted to single individuals. Whole committees need not apply.

    As for the big textbook publishing companies, better to bypass them completely by making the new textbooks available for free on-line to anyone who wants to download them. Or, where appropriate, in a low-budget, black-and-white paperback versions like they use in third-world countries. No colorful “new” editions put out every year with a lot of fancy 4-color graphics; fewer boxes, more good plain English prose.

    One other thing: parents and teachers would get the final say on which textbooks to use. Not the school board, not the state department of education, and not the federal government. Get politics out of it.

  • Luke Lea

    One added thing on my free textbook proposal. If there is federal and/or state opposition, fight it out on tenth amendment grounds. What else is that amendment for?

  • Bruno Behrend

    Broadly speaking, we need to realize that America is educated primarily by what can only be called a Government Education Complex

    That complex must be dismantled (forget reform) and converted to what I like to call an open source learning network where the money follows the child to a vast new array of independent education options.

    This is done by expanding charters (dismantling one school at a time)

    enacting more voucher laws (dismantling one child at a time)

    and rapidly expanding the availability of digital/online courses and an ad hoc basis (dismantling one course at time)

    To insure transparent outcomes and pricing, allow for the creation of “Education Savings Accounts.” This will make the consumer a smart shopper and saver.

    For what we waste on today’s worthless district-based education, we could be funding a good portion of higher ed for kids.

    Understand this. The existing system is beyond reform, and attempting to focus on teacher enhancement, strike reform, or performance pay is a fool’s errand.

    Once the money starts following the child to more independent options, the best teachers, schools, and processes will rise to the top.

    As for the important question of quality control in this new system, there are 2 important points to remember.

    First, the quality control in the current system is awful. It is an accountable and broken system serving financial interests, not the nation’s.

    Second, QC can be implemented with a light touch by creating high standards, and allowing the providers leeway in meeting them.

    Fund Children, not systems.

  • Brock

    What if modern society is just unsustainably expensive? Around GDP $10,000 per capita the fertility rate falls below replacement, regardless of culture or geography. In a society with high labor costs, kids are just too expensive to raise. We can afford 2.0 per family, but not the necessary 2.33. We just don’t generate enough wealth to both sustain the family’s current needs (food, shelter, etc.) and to make the necessary investments in human capital necessary to sustain our ability to build roads, bridges, computer networks, car factories, electrical plants, etc.

    Even America is below replacement levels. Only Israel beats the trend, but largely thanks to the Ultra-Orthodox Jews rejection of modernity.

    Naturally we should focus our innovation energies on lowering the cost of human capital formation (education). That’s the only way we can afford to exist. Otherwise we are looking at a population crash, with Italy and Japan the first ones over the cliff, but the rest of us shortly to follow.

    It would also help if we stopped spending so many resources of subsidizing the elderly.

  • John Barker

    @Luke Lea

    There are many wonderful books available already for children, written by distinguished mathematicians, scientists, historians, poets and novelists. I used many of them in my teaching days. Remember the Soviet era definition of a camel- a horse planned by a committee. Most textbooks are ponderously and preposterously dull; they are often inaccurate and poorly written, and they are kept in place for five to seven years. Talk about the exploitation of children for profit!

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The Teachers Labor Gang Monopoly is the problem, as it lacks the feedback of competition that causes continous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price in the Free Enterprise Capitalist system. Anti-Trust the Labor Gang Monopolies, Break them up and force them to compete against each other for employment contracts. It’s the American Free Enterprise Way.

  • lhf

    We moved our kids to private schools after 4th grade and the curriculum there looked much like Meade’s Brit experience. However most European countries have national standards and that’s why they were better for a time. Let local districts find the way to meet those standards, but unless you have some kind of standards you have no accountability. Right now we have national standards basically set by the NEA. Is that better than national standards set by the Education Department?

    One other thing the French do at least is to require students to repeat a grade if they don’t pass the tests and there seems to be no shame to it. You don’t have litigious parents demanding that their kids be moved ahead regardless of achievement.

  • Anthony

    To begin improving our OECD esults (although reults may not be seen for at least decade) a good elementary (K-8) core curriculum – coherent and content-specific – needs to be instituted at state level throughout United States (in addition to the four cited themes).

  • Barbara Piper

    Prof. Mead’s interesting column identifies at least two areas in which U.S. education lags: performance of students; and content. The useful responses offered here don’t distinguish between these two problems, so perhaps a further comment or two could be tolerated.

    Student performance is often attributed to schools and teachers, but the high degree of correlation between family income and education level, on the one hand, and children’s school performance, on the other, suggests that the issues are more complex. When home schooling and some charter schools produce good learning outcomes it is often because parents care enough about learning to do something about it, not because there is inherently better education at home or in a charter school. I was shocked to hear on my local news that 40% of the students in our local urban public schools do not show up for the first week of school, and many do not show up for 3 or 4 weeks. Many cases were simple parental neglect, but others were the product of social conditions. One single mother of 3 school-aged kids had to be at her janitorial job at 5 a.m., her kids at school at 8, and no one was around to make sure that the kids got themselves ready and off to school. It’s easy to propose that the mother get a better job, a higher-paying job, whatever. Not likely to happen, even to the most motivated product of the same domestic trials that she is creating for her own kids in one of those hard-to-break cycles.

    Prof. Mead’s experience in England exposed him to the possibility that what we teach in schools varies with local and national expectations. I remember Russian refugee/immigrant kids at public schools in Brookline, Mass, 25 years ago, being surprised that their classmates were learning long division at the same age they had started analytic geometry and calculus in the former Soviet Union. Their parents would have been shocked by the school system I went through in the 1950s and 60s, one that tracked students as high achievers in academic programs, or as low-performing students who were channeled into “commercial” and “vocational” tracks, nicely reproducing the social class system from which those students came. If you don’t expect much of students, you don’t get it.

    Solutions? Perhaps every society gets the educational system it really, deep-down, wants. We are pretty good at producing a somewhat small number of high achieving students, a larger number of reasonable decent achieving students, and a group of low achieving students. It never surprises me that this reflects our implicit assumptions about our social class hierarchy, with roughly a quarter at the top, about half in the middle, and another quarter at the bottom. We don’t really want a Lake Wobegon state, where every kid is above average; each of us just wants our own kids to be above average! And it’s nice to be able to tut-tut that irresponsible mother who was dumb enough to get a janitorial job that requires being at work at 5 a.m. Too bad her kids will not have more opportunities in life, but we’ll still need those janitors, and better her kids than mine.

  • dearieme

    “As a young sprout I first saw the differences in American and British education first hand ..”: them wus the days. There is a historical measure of these things that you may not have met: when the Forces of Progress set out on their great (and successful) drive to ruin the British schools, they claimed that they were going to make them more like American schools. Pretty damning, eh?

  • Corlyss

    I’m just guessing here, I’ll admit. But I fearlessly guess on . . . I bet a lot of the regress is because educational theory has produced multiple changes in cirricula and emphasis during a given student’s school lifetime. The federal governments should get out of the business of manipulating the inputs as well as squandering money on failed programs. Local jurisdictions should be allowed to work with local businesses to produce graduates capable of writing an intelligeable sentence and doing elementary cypherin’ without reliance on a calculator. They should settle on a history and civics cirriculum that produces a good citizen capable of parsing issues, not necessarily one who is capable of critiquing what’s wrong with America in six different categories of malfeasance. Bill Ayers and sorry ilk (like Chomsky) should be chivied out of the business of forumulating Ed school agendas, the sooner the better. The latter have been an unqualified disaster.

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