Friday, May 13, 2005

Falling Behind....

According to Thomas Friedman, the U.S. is at risk of falling behind the rest of the world. (Perhaps you don't see that as a new argument, but with books to push, it's pretty much the focus on everything Mr. Friedman presently says or does.) Friedman states,
I helped teach a course at Harvard last semester on globalization, and one day a student told me this story: He was part of a student-run collaboration between students in the U.S. and China. The American and Chinese students had recently started working together by using Skype, the popular, freely downloadable, software that enables you to make free phone calls over the Internet to other Skype users. But what was most interesting, the student told me, was that it was the Chinese students who introduced their U.S. counterparts to Skype. And, he noted, these Chinese students were not from major cities, like Beijing, but from smaller towns.
Now granted, Skype is not a U.S. company, but it is a European company. Perhaps this didn't occur to Mr. Friedman: U.S. students typically have "land lines" at their places of residence, and may (perhaps by now most) have cellular phones with them most of the time. They have little need to find and use a free Internet phone service. Contrast this with rural China, and perhaps there's a different explanation for the Chinese students' reliance upon Skype than Friedman's implicit suggestion that they're more tech-savvy.
"Students are getting A's and B's, but without studying much," Martha McCarthy, the Indiana University professor who headed the study, told me. "Our fear," she added, "is that when you talk to employers out there, they say they are not getting the skills they need," in part because "the colleges are not getting students with the skills they need." Ms. McCarthy said one of the main reasons Indiana did this study is to better inform high school educators what is going on in their own schools so they can find remedies. All of these shortcomings developed over time, Ms. McCarthy said, but "we as a nation became complacent about them."
I can recall similar stories about the wonders of the Japanese educational system, from back when I was a kid. Arguments to the effect that Western education is too soft; that Asian students come to eclipse us in math and science by the end of high school. There was some truth to it then, and there's some truth to it now. But when we make No Child Left Behind the mantra of our national drive toward academic mediocrity, we consistently ignore, underfund, and underutilize initiatives that might let the best students get ahead.

Friedman concludes,
America today reminds me of our last Olympic basketball team - that lackadaisical group that brought home the bronze medal. We think that all we need to do is show up and everyone else will fold - because, after all, we're just competing with ourselves.

And we think we don't need to get focused and play together like a team, with Democrats and Republicans actually working together. Well, on the basketball court - and in a flat world, where everyone now has access to all the same coaching techniques, training methods and scouting reports - a more focused, motivated team always beats a collection of more talented but complacent individuals.
Perhaps Mr. Friedman should take note of the fact that teams typically pick their players. And sure, the "turtle and the hare" story can apply to a motivatived team in competition with a more talented, complacent team. But the best team will be both skilled and motivated. Sure, it's fun to pretend that everybody has equal capacity, and if we motivate the mediocre they can beat the best, but that is not what is happening in Friedman's "flat" world. Nations like China have a long history of plucking promising child athletes out of their homes and raising them in an environment that maximizes their athletic prowess. Nations like China are applying similar principles (albeit in a less aggressive form) to identifying and advancing their brightest students, no matter where they live. Can a variant of that happen here?

1 comment:

  1. Short answer, no. Long answer . . .

    We do have a (inferior) variant of that here. It's called private schools.

    Even attempting to start Talented and Gifted programs in the public schools invariably runs into problems. Teachers don't want to "lose" their brightest students. The "reverse mainstreaming" argument will be made, "The good students need to be in the classes with all the other students to set them a good example." The system is designed to require special funding for the bottom 10% but not for the top 10%. God help you if the "best students" either a) don't have the demographics that the PC crowds says they should have or b) don't include the child of any given activist or school board member . . .