Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Our Schools Lag Behind Those In [Insert Asian Country of Choice]

Today, behind the firewall, Nicholas Kristof warns us that our schools lag way behind those in Japan... I mean, China.
But kids in the good schools in Chinese cities are leaving our children in the dust. ... Yet, there isn't any magic to it. One reason Chinese students learn more math and science than Americans is that they work harder at it. They spend twice as many hours studying, in school and out, as Americans.
He also describes the intense pressures that Japane..., er, Chinese students face to succeed in school.
Yet if the Chinese government takes math and science seriously, children and parents do so even more. At Cao Guangbiao elementary school in Shanghai, I asked a third-grade girl, Li Shuyan, her daily schedule. She gets up at 6:30 a.m. and spends the rest of the day studying or practicing her two musical instruments.

So if she gets her work done and has time in the evening, does she watch TV or hang out with friends? "No," she said, "then I review my work and do extra exercises."

A classmate, Jiang Xiuyuan, said that during summer vacation, his father allows him to watch television each evening - for 10 minutes.

The Chinese students get even more driven in high school, as they prepare for the national college entrance exams.
Even more driven? I guess that means no more music lessons, and the end of the ten minute daily television interludes during the summer break? Kristof relates all of this to the U.S.:
I don't think we could replicate the Chinese students' drive even if we wanted to. But there are lessons we can learn - like the need to shorten summer vacations and put far more emphasis on math and science.
Oh, that's helpful.

By now you've figured out that, at least in my opinion, we've heard this all before, back in the 1980's when Japanese schools were described as superior to U.S. schools, with Japanese businesses on the verge of dominating the world. We didn't learn much then, so we won't learn much now. Our more recent education "reforms", such as mandatory homework policies, create more busy work for kids but I have yet to see even the slightest evidence that they improve school performance - is there any? Shortening summer vacations means a number of things - air conditioning buildings in the hottest months of the year (some of which don't even have air conditioning systems installed), paying to keep schools open additional hours, paying teachers to teach additional classes.... One of the reasons for the shrinking U.S. public school academic year is cost-savings.

Putting an emphasis on math and science ? That's not a new theme for Kristof. Yet between the Sebastian "We don't need no stinkin' science" Mallabys of the world, and the fact that we (as a nation) don't really care about maths and sciences (and cutting them from a school's curriculum can also save money), don't count on it.

Just look at another of the latest "school reform" bandwagons - capping funds which can be spent on administration. The astroturf organization which is spearheading that initiative classifies expenses to support the football team as educational - just like classroom instruction. A school library, librarian, library books? Isn't it obvious - administrative expenditures. Keep the football team but cut the library, and you're on the right track for education in today's America.


  1. OK, I have to agree that we didn't heed the warning about Japan.And one might say that Japan is not "overtaking us now". However, with globalization, there are many more players than the US and Japan on the ball field...China, India,Ireland, etc all have the manpower and education to leave us in their dust.It is not about one player (japan...who by the way is still outrunning us in auto technology) anymore;it is about everyone.

    So we need to save money in the short run...no airconditioning in the classrooms.Did that make that much of a difference to you when you were in school?Nobody had air conditioning and we didn't do anything but sweat a little.

    Homework?There was never any good data to back homeworks's efficacy in the early grades, so the hours of homework there was a farce form the get-go.Middle school and high school was where quality "prework" was shown to be useful (just as one does pre-work for any seminar as an adult")...not cutting and pasting posters.And the only reason they started it in early grades was "to get younger kids ready for the older grades homework". Homework is not the answer and never was. It was an easy way for the system to make a change that didn't require the system to make any REAL SYSTEMIC changes.

    The real systemic changes would be in EXPECTATIONS. It would be to stop focussing our attention ONLY on the floor and to start focussing a bit on the heights that all kids can and should reach if we raise the bar. We in the US have been lowering the bar to stop the drop out rate and now we see that at least 20% of dropouts were doing find but were bored stiff by the lack of challenge!
    Kristof has it right. We have lost the edge...the hunger to get ahead.

  2. That won't be fixed by the schools - that's a societal problem.


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