Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thoughts on US Education Standing

Link to article found here: U.S. Standing at Risk: Education Leaders Propose Action Agenda

For months now, I've heard about how America's global standing in terms of education - namely technology, science, and mathematic fields - has been slipping. A few nights ago I ran across the article linked above, and it does seem that people are attempting to bring the issue to ahead.

One of the most interesting things that caught my eye in this article is the quote that it ends with:
"These are demanding recommendations that will require the commitment of everyone — schools, colleges and universities, parents and students, and state and national leaders — but the dividend will be historic... We must create a system that works, a system that propels all students toward success and rejects anything less."

It spoke to what my own philosophy about all of this is - everyone involved has to want to improve the system before anything substantial can be done. And since I'm sure that this problem will only get worst before it can get any better, I'm left to wonder what tactics will be done to try and scheme students into performing well. One such method I can think of is paying children to do well in school.

Fundamentally, I have a severe issue with this. I don't believe that anyone should be paid some type of monetary stipend for their success. It was recently brought to my attention that a fair amount of a certain grade in my school is either in danger of failing, or plainly failing their classes and now things are trying to be done to fix it. One of the students in that grade then suggested that they get paid to encourage people to pick up their grades. And to me, this just kills the point behind learning and what school should ideally be about. Once you start to pay for success, I believe that it will set up a dangerous precedent leading people to believe that for every 'good' action they do, they'll get some form of material award. This is not a realistic reflection of how life truly is - not to mention it will then shift the focus of school away from whats being taught and absorbed even more than it is now.

So here is my suggestion to the educators at Collegeboard and elsewhere: Emphasize the act of learning itself, not the grades or any type of scale that is measure with a high-risk mentality. If you're able to instill a love or at least genuine interest in topics - especially the ones we're lacking in - our world standing will surely increase. It will create a much wider culture that would value education instead of the crap we have now.

Finally, what does this mean for the world that I will graduate into? I use to think when I was younger that my American citizenship and education would allow me to go anywhere I wanted in the world, but as I get closer and closer to the finish line, I'm not too sure anymore. The pool of competition keeps growing and growing and I'll be one more fish in the sea. Will my education, even if it is from a prestigious institution in America, be a joke on the international stage? All I can say is Americans need to 'step up with our game' as goes the slang. No longer can we lackadaisically blunder along while the rest of the world carries on without us - its this type of ignorance that is leading to our asses being kicked in many more areas; education is not the only grave obstacle we have to overcome.


  1. "One of the students in that grade then suggested that they get paid to encourage people to pick up their grades."
    --Who is this person and which grade?

  2. I think the problem with incentive-based systems everywhere is that they will be gamed. Once you decide "this is the thing we're measuring and rewarding", you'll get more of that thing, but not necessarily more of the positive ripple effects associated with it. When you manage things to get a number you get a hollowed-out success, like the sub-prime loan business was a couple years ago.

    My sense is that rather than invest in incentives for students, the money should be used to create an environment conducive to learning (e.g. safe, respectful, comfortable, well-equipped) and offer opportunities for the most motivated, successful students to do cool things with what they've learned, in a way that's visible to everyone.

    I think there's also a big advantage to tailoring programs to people's individual strengths, and supporting more electives like art, dance, etc. (see Sir Ken Robinson's excellent and funny TED talk about this: http://tinyurl.com/5gsyph ).

  3. I had a look at the actual report, and it doesn't really talk about students' motivation to learn. They don't seem to think that's the problem.

    Their #1 recommendation is universal preschool. They seem to view the problem more as one of readiness rather than motivation, and the study they cite about preschool effectiveness is fairly dramatic. It showed that $1 invested in pre-school for the poor = $17 returned to society. Much of this return came from reduced crime.

    Their #2 suggestion is improved college counseling at high schools and middle schools. Apparently this is a resource which is not sufficiently available in the schools with the lowest college entrance rates.

    In all, they make 10 recommendations, which all sound very rational to me. Many of them sound very challenging and expensive, though.

  4. In addition in creating environments that promote learning, I think that parents and the kids themselves need to stop playing around and get focused. After all, no matter how much money is spent on the educator's side, it will all go to waste if its not used property by those who need it the most.

    I also like the idea of universal preschool. Could one say that readiness plays into motivation? I mean, if I've been prepared to do something, once the chance finally arrives I'd have the motivation to actually follow through on it.

    Finally, in terms of money, I wish them good luck with this 'economic crisis' of ours. Maybe these plans are going to have to wait until after the financial dust has settled.

  5. The crisis may actually help sell this plan because 1) we may get in the habit of throwing money at crises 2) the argument that market forces will fix our problems is now dead and gone.

    Perhaps this crisis will also help with the motivational problem you're concerned about. If people are scared of being unemployed or of being stuck in crappy jobs they might work harder.

    Surely readiness plays a big part in motivation, as you say, and the College Board seems most concerned about systemic issues that lead to people dropping out of school.

    I tend to agree with Ken Robinson's TED talk, though, that formal education seems to be designed to train people to become professors. Perhaps the lack of motivation you observe comes in part because not everyone has a professorial personality and outlook. There does seem to be a broad correlation between levels of education completed and career success, but often the A and B students end up being specialists working in companies started by former C students who spent their college years building up social networks, learning how to charm people, or in some extreme cases just plain getting stoned.

    I'm not advocating anything other than valuing knowledge and education and hard work, and I always prefer when the people running things did well in school (e.g. Obama or Clinton, as opposed to Bush Jr. or Reagan), but if people learn how to learn and how to apply themselves when it matters, then it's less important whether they paid attention in a particular class which was not interesting to them. Along those lines, I think being able to ask the right questions is often more important than being able to answer questions one receives.