Monday, October 12, 2009

Does America need to get smarter?

I worked with American high school students for several years - and the standard of their education always impressed me. Even though there's a lot of noise made in America about how terrible the education system is, in my experience American students have been a lot more confident in several areas than the European kids I've worked with.

European kids tend to do better with languages, history and humanities - but American kids are more confident in general and have a wider, more practical curriculum. Most American tenth graders, for example, could Solve math problems that were gibberish to me!

Despite that, President Obama recently made a pledge to improve the standard of education across the nation. By extending hours and curtailing vacation, he hopes to improve test scores across the board and put American students on a level footing with more education-focused countries like Japan.

Of course, this plan has had a mixed response. Richer parents tend to be against it - longer school hours means less time with their kids without much discernible benefit. Also, private businesses like summer camps and day care are concerned that the longer hours means less business for them - kids will be in school for hours that parents used to have to pay day care costs for.

But for poorer kids, Obama's plans offer huge benefits. Kids from poorer backgrounds tend to drop back during the summer vacation, so longer school hours and shorter vacations will keep their educational momentum going. Longer school hours also keep disadvantaged kids in a supervised environment for more of the day - reducing juvenile crime rates and the opportunity to experiment with drugs, alcohol and sex. Finally, school is sometimes the only opportunity really poor kids have for a hot meal - so reducing the summer vacation has an enormous benefit for them.

And regardless of demographics, increased school hours have been proven to Help math scores across the board - and if other subjects follow suit, longer school hours aren't going to do the next generation of American students any harm whatsoever.

“Ten minutes extra math sounds trivial to a school day, but don’t forget, math periods in the U.S. average 45 minutes,” said researcher Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. “Percentage-wise, that’s a pretty healthy increase.”

Help with math is particularly important for kids. In the United States, math is 50% of the infamous SAT, which helps students gain entry into college. A grounding in math can lead into lucrative careers in all sorts of fields - economics, engineering and science. If I had my time again, math is certainly something I'd work harder at:
All this talk of longer school hours isn't all positive, though. It's not just day care providers and summer camps who are criticizing Obama's plans. Others are wary of the school system being expanded.

For a start, increasing the school day by three hours a day would cost thousands per student - and increase schooling budgets (and property taxes) by millions. That's a tough sell in the US, despite what benefits it might bring for American students.

Secondly, there's already a push back against state eduction - with right-wing groups objecting to approved curriculum which teach evolution in science class, sex education for age-appropriate students and history curriculum that have become too 'politically correct.'

"Remove your children from the pagan institutions known as public, or government, schools. Evidence shows how dangerous these institutions are spiritually, morally, and academically," argues the creator of

“The research data on the success of the public schools in indoctrinating Christian youth with humanistic or neo-pagan worldviews is overwhelming. The Nehemiah Institute’s worldview PEERS test shows that 83-percent of the children from committed Christian families in public schools adopt a secular humanist or Marxist socialist worldview."

As far as some members of the right wing are concerned, indoctrinating their kids with blinkered religious and political dogma isn't the responsibility of the school system - that's what they're there for.


Susanne said...

What's wrong with parents teaching their own children? Do you not think you have your son's best interests at heart more than a faceless state-run school system? You teach your little guy right and wrong and don't expect the government to do that..I HOPE. So it's fine for others in America to do the same. If you want your child to be brought up by the government because you think the government cares more for him, fine. But not all of us believe this way.

Roland Hulme said...

Hi Susanne!

Homeschooling is a really interesting topic and one I've discussed here. When I came to America, I was TOTALLY against it for a variety of reasons - but talking to other people (most notably Coffee Bean) made me reconsider my preconceptions about it - and statistics proving that homeschooled kids do better with tests is compelling evidence to support it.

As I have developed my love and understanding of American society, I've also come to the conclusion that home schooling is an essential liberty all parents should have the right to exercise. I might not agree with everything they teach and it might not be a choice I'd want to make for my own kids, but from an objective understanding of what makes America tick, I can see that it's one of the most clear rights a parent has.

The problem with both liberals and conservatives is that they pick and choose the parts of the constitution they like. I try not to do that (I can't say I always succeed) so even though I don't favor it, I stand by a parent's right to home school because if I don't support that constitutional right, how can I ask other people to support the constitutional rights that are important to me?

Susanne said...

Thank you. I just happen to feel that the majority of PARENTS have their children's best interests at heart. More than a faceless government entity.

I appreciate your stance and for your willingness to hear another point of view and adjust your position.

Alan Cook said...

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.

This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to clandestinely teach them math via real life projects.

Alan Cook

ck said...

You should let me write a guest blog (since I don't have a personal one any longer) on schools. Being a parent of five, I think I qualify :-)

But this is actually one BO proposal I support. Our children are getting stupider every year...

Roland Hulme said...

I'd be honored if you'd do a guest post about it - shoot me an email!