Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Education in the United States

At a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of which I am a member the speaker was a male exchange student that I will refer to as “Jose,” from Quito, Ecuador, whom our club sponsored for a school year visit to the United States. His country’s education system is quite different from ours. Last year our club sponsored a young lady from Frankfort, Germany, that I will call “Gretchen.” Her country’s education system is also quite different from ours. Both students were well educated in their home countries, and attended local high schools near where I live.

Here is a snapshot of education in Ecuador and Germany: In Ecuador students study 20 subjects each year, including multiple sciences, math subjects and foreign languages. German students have a similar situation, but with one more facet: the Germans have a two-tiered high school system, and only the best students get into the upper-tier school. The decision as to which students have demonstrated that they are capable of functioning at the upper level and are serious about getting a solid education is a made in grade school.

Both countries utilize a class schedule that is not the same each day. Today, students may have algebra, French, English, biology and history, and tomorrow they may have chemistry, Latin, geometry, geography and Spanish. In Germany, activities like band and choir are extracurricular; there isn’t time for them during the school day, although music and art are part of the curriculum.

Both students expressed their preference for the American school system; “it’s easier,” Jose said. Gretchen had very much the same opinion.

Both students will have to repeat the year of school they spent in the United States, for slightly different reasons. In Ecuador, there is no room in their curriculum for subjects like art that Jose elected to study here. Gretchen was involved in her school’s jazz band and choir, and took other classes for which there was no equivalent in Frankfort, and, she said, German education authorities want to be sure that her education was consistently high in quality.

Here in the United States students usually take the same classes each day, and classes like driver’s education, band, choir, theater and keyboarding are regular parts of the curriculum and count toward graduation. A foreign language is not a requirement for graduation in some state systems, and it is not unusual for high school seniors to have only two or three required classes in their final year, and are sometimes finished with school by lunch time.

With this vastly different approach to educating young people, which method is better? Do Ecuador and Germany know something we don’t know? Or is the United States leading the world in progressive educational methodology?

Here’s what one news story said on that matter: “The United States is losing ground in education, as peers across the globe zoom by with bigger gains in student achievement and school graduations, a study shows.” And also, ”Among adults age 25 to 34, the U.S. is ninth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree. In the same age group, the United States ranks seventh … in the share of people who hold a college degree.” As recently as 20 years ago, the United States led in both categories.

You might suspect that story was based upon a study prepared by a right-wing organization bent on re-organizing the American education system around conservative principles that would take American school children back to the education system of 30 years ago? But, no, it was published by the Associated Press and reported what the Paris-based Organization for Cooperation found out about international education from test scores released last December that compared 15-year-olds in the United States with their peers in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

Barry McGaw, director of education for the OC, concludes that based upon what we in the United States spend on education, our relatively low student achievement through the high school years shows our school system is "clearly inefficient." Spending for education had grown in the U.S. to a half-billion dollars annually by the 2003-2004 school year, one-third more than the nation spent on national defense, something around $9,000 per student per year. We spend seven percent of our gross national product on education, and there are many who will tell you that it isn’t enough. Yet, the U.S. is slipping in international education rankings.

If we can believe the results of the OC, while the U.S. probably leads the world in developing and experimenting with idealistic and progressive educational methods, it is losing ground in actually educating its youth.

Columnist and author Mona Charen has written: “For more than three centuries, Americans educated their children in private, religious and local public schools. Children thus educated managed to build the United States into the world’s largest economy and preeminent military power.” She is correct. And until the last twenty years that system of education enabled the U.S. to lead the world, or be near the top of the list of educational accomplishment. However, the greatest days of American education appear to be behind us: before 1979 when the federal Department of Education was created, and before we started down the road of experimenting with new and unproven educational methods.

What is going to happen to the United States now that we have abandoned a successful system of educating our young people in favor of a system that is losing ground to the rest of the world?

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