Are U.S. schools failing?
In light of a financial crisis, this question looms ever more
ominously. With a manufacturing base outsourced to other countries, the United State has to rely more and more on white-collar jobs to preserve competitiveness. White-collar jobs are in turn reliant on an educated populace; hence why the question of our education system’s effectiveness is so salient.
Some people fear that the answer is “yes.” The results from the Program for International Student Assessment, an aptitude test which was administered in 2010, found that U.S. students are merely average in most subjects, and quite poor in mathematics. U.S. students scored 487 on the math portion of the test, with 500 set as the average.
What worries many is not the lackluster scores of the United States, but rather the meteoric rise of another country in such measures: China. On its first year of testing, Chinese students from Shanghai outscored all other countries in virtually every single subject. The test results are being billed as a sort of “Sputnik moment,” a moment in which it has become apparent that U.S. dominance is no longer the case. But before one eulogizes the death of American education, one should take into consideration two points.
It goes without saying that China’s education system is not perfect. Chinese educators themselves are painfully aware of this fact; in an article from NPR, Liu Jinghai, a principal from Shanghai, was quoted: “Why don’t Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything.” While Chinese schools excel in making students regurgitate information mechanically, they fail to foster a sense of independent thinking and creativity. Instead of participating in extracurricular activities and clubs that let them explore their passions, Chinese students are forced to study constantly. The epitome of this emphasis on rote learning is the gaokao, the college entrance exam. Think of it as a souped-up version of the SAT. However, instead of being just a part among a wide variety of metrics in college admissions, the gaokao is virtually the sole determinant of a student’s range of postsecondary opportunities. There are no essays or extracurricular activities to gauge students’ breadth of learning — they are too busy studying, remember? And with their futures largely hanging on a numerical value — which is largely determined by how well they follow directions and memorize facts — is it any surprise that Chinese students are wary of thinking for themselves?
Contrast this with the U.S. educational system. Say what you will about the problems of our system; in the end, it still nurtures some of the most brilliant and inventive students to their full potential. Our colleges and universities are the envy of the world, as evidenced by their routine dominance in world academic rankings. It is hard to imagine a place like Silicon Valley — with its close ties to academia through Stanford, its inveterate drive for innovation, its massive growth in stature in such a short span of time — existing anywhere else in the world. Average we may be in taking tests; in propelling the world forward we are anything but.
I am not making a jingoistic case for the supremacy of the U.S. education system, however. It has its merits and its faults. Instead of dismissing China’s successes in light of its shortcomings, perhaps we can learn something from their example. The only reason why the Chinese system can be so rigorous and demanding is because the Chinese place a high value on education. Being a teacher is seen as a high-status occupation, not a fallback career. The Chinese nerd has more social capital than the Chinese jock. If we as a society adopt such a serious attitude toward education, perhaps we can alleviate the ills unearthed by the PISA test. We must become intolerant toward anti-intellectualism; it should not be socially acceptable to admit that “I do not really read books.” We must put the scientist on a higher mantle than the athlete. U.S. kids should be dreaming of becoming the next Richard Feynman instead of being the next Michael Vick.
No, the PISA test is not a Sputnik moment, but that does not mean we should completely ignore it. It is a mirror that makes us aware of the faults of U.S. education, and we should take it as a wake-up call to take action against such faults.
Rolph Recto is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily.