Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why are American Students Failing?

The supposed failure of the American student is not the fault of the politicians or the education system. And it is certainly not the fault of the teachers. The problem is that we need to stop thinking of the education system as failing. When we categorize the system as a failure, we are saying that our children are a failures.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently rated the American education system as “average.” And at first glance it seems that we have regressed greatly in the past 50 years, earning our failure label. But what if we haven’t regressed? What if we are not failing, but everyone else is just catching up and passing us?

The American education system is not perfect and certainly requires more commitment from both the government and guardians. However, the idea that an overhaul is necessary to return to its global dominance is false. We need to consider the fact that maybe we have past our prime.

Consider this: the OECD currently ranks South Korea number one in reading and math. The United States is a distant fourteenth in math and twenty-fourth in reading. The United Kingdom is ranked twentieth in reading. Estonia is ranked tenth in reading. Does anyone else see a pattern here?

The developing world, Estonia, is finally catching up to the developed world, the United Kingdom. So why then can we not catch back up easily? If we invest more in education, by paying our teachers better and upgrading our schools we will be on top again, right? Not exactly. The factor I believe that makes it difficult for the United States to ever be dominant again in education is motivation.

Our parents were in school when President Kennedy said these famous words, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

American children were bright-eyed and motivated then- ready to take on the world. And every kid wanted to go to the moon. Today, kids want to be professional video game players (yes, that is a real profession). They do not have an interest in math and reading, and certainly not in science.

If America ever wants to be on top of anything ever again we need to find a way to motivate the young generation to want to be astronauts again.( Not that it will be easy or anything. What do you think kids would rather do- study for calculus or play Modern Warfare III?)

There is one silver lining for the United States, however; we are number one in higher education. Although, that might not be our students making us number one. In 2010/2011 there were 723,277 international students studying in colleges in the United States. Twenty percent of those students were from China. Should I even tell you where China ranks in reading and math with the OECD? Let me give you a hint: better than the USA where it counts. 

1 comment:

Chris J. said...


Great piece that looks at the "problem" in a different way. It is interesting to also note the dichotomy present in our education system: a "prestigious" higher education system that is acclaimed by almost everyone in the world; and primary/secondary education systems that are, as politicians and the ilk say, "failing."

As everyone is scrambling trying to improve the latter with Project-, Place-, or Inquiry-based Learning, creating new interrelated curriculum, and more, maybe we should look to our great higher education system to glean some tools and insights from it and adapt them to the other...

Just a thought :)