Monday, May 30, 2011

Some Thoughts on American Schools

I missed this January 11, 2011 Businessweek.com column on America's education system by Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at University of California-Berkeley, senior research associate at Harvard Law School, and director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University.  It has some salient points that bear repeating.
Meanwhile, the perception is that American children live a relatively easy life and coast their way through school. They don't do any more homework than they have to; they spend an extraordinary amount of time playing games, socializing on the Internet, text-messaging each other; they work part time to pay for their schooling and social habits. And they party. A lot. These stereotypes worry many Americans. They believe the American education system puts the country at a great disadvantage. But this is far from true.

The independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce. They learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks. They can think for themselves, and they can innovate. This is why America remains the world leader in innovation; why Chinese and Indians invest their life savings to send their children to expensive U.S. schools when they can. India and China are changing, and as the next generations of students become like American ones, they too are beginning to innovate. So far, their education systems have held them back. [emphais mine]
I will rise atop one of my favorite soapboxes to loudly add that it's a liberal arts education that gives Promethean fire to that imagination.

Wadhwa adds,
We documented that these countries now graduate four to seven times as many engineers as does the U.S.The quality of these engineers, however, is so poor that most are not fit to work as engineers; their system of rote learning handicaps those who do get jobs, so it takes two to three years for them to achieve the same productivity as fresh American graduates.As a result, significant proportions of China's engineering graduates end up working on factory floors and Indian industry has to spend large sums of money retraining its employees.
He concludes by putting test scores in perspective.

Much is made of the PISA test scores and rankings, but the international differences are actually quite small. Most of the U.S. ranking lags are not even statistically significant. The U.S. falls in the second rank on some measures and into the first on others. It produces more highest-performing students in science and reading than any other country does; in mathematics, it is second only to Japan. Moreover, one has to ask what the test results actually mean in the real world. Do high PISA rankings make students more likely to invent the next iPad? Google (GOOG)? I don't think so.

Let's keep improving our education system and focus, in particular, on disadvantaged groups. Education is the future of our nation. But let's get over our inferiority complex. America is second to none. Rather than in mastery of facts learned by rote and great numbers of accomplished martinets, its strength lies in the diversity and innovation that arise in an open, creative society. [emphasis mine]
Today, the MadvilleTimes shows that letting private enterprise run schools might be counterproductive and concludes,
The free market is like my Volkswagen: it’s great for lots of tasks, but it doesn’t solve everything. It gets good mileage and zooms up hills like a trooper. But if you want to take everyone to the game, you’re going to need something a little bigger… like a big yellow public school bus.
A synthesis of Dr. Wadhwa and ABD Heidelberger might be American schools are the best bet to produce students with the imagination to build a big yellow school bus that gets more miles per gallon than a Volkswagen Beetle.

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