Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The state of American public education

Driving to work this morning in the snow, I listened to NPR discuss the outcome of American students who took the Programme for International Student Assessment test along with students around the world. We scored no better than we did in 2010. Our highest achieving state, Massachusetts, still scored two full years of education behind Shanghai. We are woefully undereducated in math, science, and reading.

            Umm, ten years and no difference? Finland and Korea are the powerhouses. Why don’t we study their models and adapt it to the United States? We’ve spent billions of dollars, fiddled with our K-12 education for ten years, and excoriated teachers. Why don’t we adopt an existing working paradigm?

            Now the personal anecdote. When I taught those years in Seattle, I taught quite a few- maybe one third of each class- of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese nationals. Asian parents will forsake much to get their children to America for college. These students told a common story. K-12 school days were from 9-5 and year around. At seven in the evening, students went to tutoring (five nights a week). In Korea, the state says that all tutoring places must close at ten p.m. so that students can get enough rest. However, the tutors rented interior offices and turned the outside lights off at ten so that when patrols came by, there was no light seepage to give them away as they labored on. These students were magnificently educated.

Do I think this will fly in America? Not all of it, no. But, I think we need a radically different approach to education and there are models we can study and adopt.

            On the drive home today, (still frozen and snowy) NPR was interviewing a Harvard professor. Guess what? The average grade earned at Harvard is an A. There was a long discussion of grade inflation on the college level. This particular faculty member privately gave each student his actual estimate of his or her course grade, just so the student knew the true evaluation. Then the Prof put the A’s in the grading system. One of my favorite colleagues used to say- tongue in cheek, “Just give me the grade sheets along with the 12th day class roll and I’ll just fill them out.”  

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