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Sunday, January 30, 2011

What's happening to America's education system?

Yesterday I read Robert Brokamp's guest post over at Get Rich Slowly. For those who don't have the desire to read his post, he questions America's standards of parenting and education in contrast to standards in other countries like China and India. The apparent catalyst for his post is Amy Chua's recently published memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Her book recalls her upbringing as a child of Chinese immigrants, and also covers her attempts (and failures) to mimic her parents' strict parenting with her own children.

But for every voice calling for sterner education and parenting, there is another arguing for less stress and more individual respect. In this post I hope to walk the line between the two and discuss my personal views on the subject. Stick around, you might find something to talk about.

Brokamp uses a few videos to highlight his point. First, the trailer for Two Million Minutes:
This documentary follows teens in America, India, and China. Unsurprisingly, it looks like the Americans are at the bottom of the totem pole.

Next up, the trailer for Waiting for Superman:
The overconfidence of American youth clearly goes hand-in-hand with the lax education standards. If a privleged American believes himself to be ripe with potential and gifted with talent, what incentive does he have to work his tail off for an education?

Yeah, I don't see any either.

But remember the other side of the argument I mentioned? They have videos too. First off, the trailer for Race to Nowhere:
Wait, so we're stressing and overloading our kids too much? What happened to the lazy, shallow students? These kids look to be working just as hard as the Indian and Chinese students.

Finally, a video of Erica Goldson, Valedictorian of her class at Coxsackie-Athens High School questioning the legitimacy of her education as a poster child for "Unschooling":
Well didn't that come out of left field? Crazy.

In the midst of this torrent of information and outcry, what's really the issue? What's really at stake? And - most important of all - what should we do?

I happen to have a few thoughts on the subject. Surprise, surprise.

1. Calm down, everybody!

Personally, I think these "issues" aren't completely out of hand. Have we lost all concept of what a great (or even good) education is? Perhaps. Can we drastically improve the American education system? Definitely, but it's time to buckle down and do it.

2. Only math and science?

While math and science standards seem to be all the rage, have we forgotten all about essentials like Language or Social Sciences? I think that's where our strengths have been for a while. And if there's anything I've learned thus far in my education, it's that focusing on building on your strengths is far more productive than attempting to fix problems. Why? Easy. You have far fewer major strengths to work on than you do perceived problems. Plus, you probably already know what it takes to work on your strengths. That's why they're strengths! You're a relative expert.

3. Suggestions regarding math.

The question you'll hear out of the mouth of every frustrated math student across America is this:

"When am I actually going to need this?!"

Teachers need to be able to demonstrate this, well before that question forms in the student's mind. Math teachers need to be able to offer positive models of what good mathematicians can do: show engineers working on NASA spacecraft, an Accountant keeping a failing company from bankruptcy, a computer programmer designing the physics engine in the next big video game. Beyond that, break down math concepts into tangible parts, and push kids to master them. It is my opinion that most of us could be working multivariable calculus problems without life-threatening issue if we had built up our math skills over time with a solid foundation.

4. Suggestions regarding science

I believe all students should be held to higher standards in science. Most kids just do the labs, put forth lame efforts, and are done with it. But again, if we hold them to a high standard, I'm convinced they'll rise to it. And also again, I'm pretty sure some examples of successful and cool (note: non-nerdy) scientists wouldn't hurt either.

5. They're not kidding when they say they're stressed.

American youth are cast into this role of competition: trying to be experts at everything. The Tiger Mother knows better than this for her children. Instead, she relegates them to strict educational and extracurricular roles and demands nothing but the best from them. Now I'm not saying this authoritarian style of parenting is the ideal, but I'm saying that the Tiger Mother has got something going for her. She's honest with her kids about their performance, she shows them the potential of deliberate practice, and she picks a few select skills to excel at.

The current way of doing things in American education leaves kids burnt out and unfulfilled. That's why Erica Goldson spoke against her education. That's why Brittany and Neil choose to party and procrastinate - they're looking for a way out of a broken system. Today's college freshmen are experiencing more mental health problems than ever.

6. It's time to reinvent ourselves, just a bit.

In today's world, the United States has to take a step back and reexamine the current status quo. We're trying to solve the economy, healthcare, social security, energy demands, poverty, third world conflict, and education problems all at the same time. Maybe it's time to look at the examples of other nations who have their game together. We can reverse-engineer a great education system by looking at, for example, the unconventional Finnish school system. No standardized tests, comprehensive learning, and an earlier start on consistent education - and it works. Finland is consistently rated as having the best education in the world, so we might as well learn from the best. And if we really want to kick it up a notch, we need to change the way we look at learning. I think President Obama said it quite well in his recent State of the Union Address:

“We need to teach our kids that it’s not only the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”

That's right, parents: This is your responsibility, too.

And with that, I'm done with my soapbox for today. Thank you for reading this long post, I hope you got something out of it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, I'd love to hear them.


  1. Nice post. We were actually discussing Tiger Mother in my sociology class last week.

  2. Thanks man. What was the topic of discussion?