As I summarized in my January 11, 2012, post, “We the People Demand Higher Education,” the general population in the United States has historically insisted that everyone have equal access to learning. Although achieving this goal has been and will continue to be a long process, the goal of parity in access to education could not be clearer historically.
However, some of the relentless diatribes of politicians that are too enthusiastically carried and reverberated by the media beg two questions: 1) Is it possible that Americans no longer feel that everyone has an equal right to education? 2) Is the 1% trying to get the 99% to give up the right to earn a college degree and the benefits that result in order to maintain the economic imbalance in the U.S.?
U.S. vs. World
One example of a frequent mantra is that U.S. students do not perform as well as students in other countries, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) areas. At first glance, if we were to look at the reported results of a study like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Program for Student Assessment (PISA), it would appear that the United States is clearly a “C student” internationally in math, reading, and science (2003). While few people would be content with being average, some qualification is often missing from the discussion. The most obvious being that ‘average’ does not equal ‘failure’. Students in the U.S. are not so miserably behind in the global game that they can’t compete or that they are totally unprepared. In fact, if studies like this were to include all of the nations of the world instead of just some, the U.S. would move even higher up on the curve. A more recent and extensive reporting of these international scores complied by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2007) shows improvement for students in the U.S. The report could be summarized as saying that Americans have raised their grades from Cs to B/B+s.
What is much more significant, however, is what is not shared. Unlike most of the rest of the world, the U.S. educational system is much more egalitarian and forgiving than the systems of most, if not all of, the countries in the world. When an outbreak of tirades dominated the news about a year ago regarding the belief that Chinese students outpaced American students, Andrew J. Rotherham of Time was one of the few who qualified the study upon which this was based (2011).
First, he pointed out that the Chinese results were based on students in Shanghai, not all of China. Rotherham explains this: “is not unlike taking all the college kids in Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard and MIT, and declaring them to be a representative sample of higher education across the U.S. When we start testing rural China, we’ll get a more accurate picture of what we’re really up against.”
Second, Rotherham accurately points out that the democratic approach to education in the United States means that Americans do not separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, only allowing the best and the brightest to continue their education. He refers to the second chances students in the U.S. are often given if they fail a test, or—I would add—flunk out of college the first time. On the other hand, Rotherham states, “Even in some industrialized nations, high-stakes tests mean a lot of kids get kicked to the curb. That’s not our way.” Perhaps it’s preferable to have a more largely educated population of C-B range students than to have a small elite group of A students receiving all of the benefits that come along with a college degree. Unless the egalitarian approach to education is no longer the mission in the United States.
Inside Higher Ed writer Garrison Walters made an interesting observation on this issue about the influence on education of nationalism among countries of the world. He states that “Schooling meant learning the national language and literature, and being highly educated meant being a standard bearer for your people.” To put it simply, becoming educated has historically been closely aligned with being a good patriot in many other countries. It could be added that in many of them, like the current and former less democratic and more autocratic nations like China, this was also tightly connected not only to one’s livelihood but more horrifyingly from the American perspective, to life itself. A good citizen in a communist country knows and follows the party line. (Hence the Chinese only having their best and brightest in Shanghai take part in the testing rather than a more balanced mix of students across the nation.)
Contrast this with the American experience of nationalism which is nearly in direct opposition to this. In the U.S., being a good patriot isn’t typically defined by how well educated one is; rather, it’s delineated by more abstract characteristics like living in freedom and equality. This includes being an independent thinker, and thus the potential for resistance to the type of oligarchic education in other countries.
Overall, comparing the achievements of students worldwide can be helpful if interpreted within context and applied in a way that will improve education in the U.S. However, the continual calls for American education to be more like the systems of other nations produces some uneasiness as it also has the potential agenda to push us into a less egalitarian system than what American culture has traditionally fought for and one has to wonder why such pressures seem to have their inception among the privileged 1%.