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~生まれた町で夢見てきた...~
"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Food for thought on the state of the U.S. educational system 
18th-Jun-2008 12:39 am
Accordion
From a must-read article by Fareed Zakaria on "the Rise of the Rest":
[H]igher education is the United States' best industry. In no other field is the United States' advantage so overwhelming. A 2006 report from the London-based Center for European Reform points out that the United States invests 2.6 percent of its GDP in higher education, compared with 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan. Depending on which study you look at, the United States, with five percent of the world's population, has either seven or eight of the world's top ten universities and either 48 percent or 68 percent of the top 50. The situation in the sciences is particularly striking. In India, universities graduate between 35 and 50 Ph.D.'s in computer science each year; in the United States, the figure is 1,000. A list of where the world's 1,000 best computer scientists were educated shows that the top ten schools are all American. The United States also remains by far the most attractive destination for students, taking in 30 percent of the total number of foreign students globally, and its collaborations between business and educational institutions are unmatched anywhere in the world. All these advantages will not be erased easily, because the structure of European and Japanese universities -- mostly state-run bureaucracies -- is unlikely to change. And although China and India are opening new institutions, it is not that easy to create a world-class university out of whole cloth in a few decades.

Few people believe that U.S. primary and secondary schools deserve similar praise. The school system, the line goes, is in crisis, with its students performing particularly badly in science and math, year after year, in international rankings. But the statistics here, although not wrong, reveal something slightly different. The real problem is one not of excellence but of access. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the standard for comparing educational programs across nations, puts the United States squarely in the middle of the pack. The media reported the news with a predictable penchant for direness: "Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens Are Among Worst at Math," declared The Wall Street Journal.

But the aggregate scores hide deep regional, racial, and socioeconomic variation. Poor and minority students score well below the U.S. average, while, as one study noted, "students in affluent suburban U.S. school districts score nearly as well as students in Singapore, the runaway leader on TIMSS math scores." The difference between the average science scores in poor and wealthy school districts within the United States, for instance, is four to five times as high as the difference between the U.S. and the Singaporean national average. In other words, the problem with U.S. education is a problem of inequality. This will, over time, translate into a competitiveness problem, because if the United States cannot educate and train a third of the working population to compete in a knowledge economy, this will drag down the country. But it does know what works.
Personal experience leads me to believe that Zakaria is right...and the sad part is that privileged Americans take their world class educational system for granted. My public high school was, to the affluent (mostly white) locals, a "very good" school and everybody's kids attended it, but by objective measures, the quality of its education was world class. My current institution of higher learning is, to the locals, again a "very good" school (insert sage nod here); how easily we forget that the "very good" regional school is considered one of the top 50 universities in the world...and how heedlessly we're willing to pretend that "very good" isn't good enough to justify diverting additional resources to where they're really needed.
Comments 
18th-Jun-2008 11:37 am (UTC)
Then again, Europeans look at the ongoing debates regarding whether or not to teach creationism (or "intelligent design") instead of evolution in US schools, repeated bannings of classic literature (Mark Twain anyone?) on grounds of said literature's lack of contemporary political correctness, and other such jokes, and we shake our heads.
18th-Jun-2008 03:58 pm (UTC)
People outside the U.S. often seem to forget how BIG the U.S. is. And every school district in virtually every podunk town is autonomous; none of the idiotic news makers ever shake schools anywhere near where I live (now or in the past). ^^; News media is a race to the bottom. No one, least of all Americans themselves, want to hear that the rich white kids do about as well as the Singaporean kids in math--because if we admit it, then that means we have face the fact that it's the poor black kid that's being truly under-served. If we delude ourselves that the entire system sucks, then the rich white kid's parents can keep investing in their own "middling" system, instead of working to level the field.

And I must say that I've concluded that much-maligned political correctness, after living abroad, is a virtue. People have prejudices wherever they go, but Americans at least have learned that it's not in good taste to let them show in public; I was shocked especially by how ugly continental Europeans could be with their prejudices.
18th-Jun-2008 04:21 pm (UTC)
"I was shocked especially by how ugly continental Europeans could be with their prejudices."

Towards Americans? :) Well, at least in this century, most likely.

(Where in Europe were you?)

Seriously, the issue I have with PC is that it's going too far. Being more polite to one another is one thing, and the good side of it. (I do believe, however, that PC is only window dressing. It doesn't change attitudes.) Censoring classic literature, or condemning writers of several hundred years ago because they didn't follow the standards of today, is something else entirely, and in my opinion a totally unacceptable part.

(I'd rather deal with someone who is ugly to my face, so I can [metaphorically] go for his jugular, rather than with someone who masks his ugliness with surface politeness while he stabs me in the back.)

But that's beside the issue.

"No one, least of all Americans themselves, want to hear that the rich white kids do about as well as the Singaporean kids in math--because if we admit it, then that means we have face the fact that it's the poor black kid that's being truly under-served."

And that would be precisely why they need to be told that. While reforms can never be done without the rich, it requires those closer to the bottom to force them in. (I'm first in line to say that Europe also urgently needs educational reforms, the issue isn't a US issue, it's global. Schools all over the world seem to not have arrived in the 21st century. Unfortunately, politicians all over the world couldn't care less. An uneducated population is a more easily controlled population.)
18th-Jun-2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
Towards Americans?

Not especially. Americans, or white ones at least, were usually given a healthy amount of respect. The worst behavior seemed reserved for non-whites, Asians, Africans, etc. from many different countries. And the worst offenders, interestingly, were the rich kids that had money to travel on their parent's dime.

Censoring classic literature, or condemning writers of several hundred years ago because they didn't follow the standards of today, is something else entirely, and in my opinion a totally unacceptable part.

That's something else that's never happened anywhere near where I've lived in the U.S. More race to the bottom news.

The only censorship thing I did ever encounter directly was done by a book publisher, not a school; the Signet imprint of classic literature was silently editing out anti-semitic references. They got called out for it in the press but dunno if they ever stopped. Except, err, Signet is Penguin, which is a UK corporation, not an American one.
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