Even though I was born in Reno, Nevada, I grew up studying (mostly) at american schools in Asia. There are few doubts as to how differently American students study from their Asian counterparts, but not quite as few when it comes to speculating why this is.
PISA is an acronym for Program for International Student Assessment, an assessment conducted by OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development), done once every three years, aimed at comparing scholarly abilities of 15-year olds from more than 50 countries world-wide. The PISA 2006 report shows that students in the U.S consistently fall behind those in other first-world nations by noticeable margins.
Given these numbers, it seems only contradictory, that the U.S is also a leader in higher education, with its universities taking the absolute majority of top-100 world university rankings as shown here (Times Higher Education) and here (Shanghai Jiao-Tung University). It is commonly believed that the amount of freedom and choice that exists in America’s educational systems is what bred some of the brightest minds ever to walk on the planet.
Freedom and choice in determining one’s academic directions thus play important roles in the formation and operation of America’s public K-12 education: de-centralized, lightly-regulated and highly autonomous down to the district, even to the school level. Compared to its first-world counterparts, the U.S is one of the very few first-world nations that afford such high degrees of control over education to its states and territories. While many advanced Asian economies such as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan carefully assess and control academic and graduation requirements of their public schools, the U.S federal government relegates such responsibilities to local governments, leading to six different regional accreditation boards for primary and secondary education, and couple dozens of school standards for science and math education.
What does this all mean?
This means, we as a nation has almost no way of ensuring that our high school graduates have mastered adequates levels of reading, writing and quantitative skills necessary to advance in work and post-secondary academic settings. We have high school students graduating having taken AP Calculus, while many have barely completed Algebra I, which is the equivalent to the math standard of a 7th grader in many first-world countries. In fact, we almost have no idea if an Algebra I or Calculus class mean the same thing on the east coast and on the west coast.
A possibly misplaced paradigm of freedom in our public K-12 education systems has made the U.S a country with staggering differences in the levels of education between cities, between states and between ethnic groups. Is a de-centralized system that claims to shape education based on local and individual perceptions really for the best? a recent report challenges this view. I reckon that very few would actually agree that limiting children’s potentials with perceptions that surround them, is the best paradigm for running our school systems – why should students stop learning because their immediate community does not recognize the kinds of knowledge and skills required to succeed in today’s society?
Every child deserves to be informed of and offered the developments necessary to live rewarding and fulfilling lives in the 21st century.
The take-home message here, isn’t centralized control, and it certainly isn’t imposing homogeneity in learning styles. What we ought to consider, is how science and math education differ so drastically across states. What we ought to consider, is how graduation rates differ between ethnic groups on a staggering magnitude. What we ought to consider, is how local economic and cultural factors that cause schools to fail, can be investigated and remedied by resources beyond local borders.
A problem always calls for a solution. What we’re looking at is not just room for legislative progress, but also a warmbed for distance-learning technologies that deliver high-caliber educational resources to those whose local facilities struggle to provide.