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Essay – The Flat World (WIP)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

(This essay is a work in progress, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of public education in the United States, so much so, that I’m writing an essay about it for one of my classes but it’s also a way for me to exercise my writing.)

Linda Darling Hammond in The Flat World and Education outlines how the inequities in the American school system harm our children and our future as a democratic republic. The book discusses what we must do, in practice and in policy, to provide more equitable education to American children, she also looks at where were we are now and how we got to where we are now. By using information about education systems and statistics around the world and comparing them to the United States comparatively ranks with the world, she also looks at how shifting federal policy changes in education have produced the vast inequity in education that we see across America today.
 
The world is changing, and as Tom Friedman, author of The World is Flat, has demonstrated, it is becoming increasingly flat. Globalization is changing everything about how we work, how we communicate, and, ultimately, how we live (3). Hammond explains through her studies of other countries that have been adapting to the increasing globalization by concentrating their efforts in increasing education for their citizens and adopting education strategies that move away from the static rote memorization factory model of school to a much more flexible, dynamic model that supports complex knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century. And it’s working, East Asian and Western European countries are consistently outranking the United States in high school graduation rates, college completion rates, in addition to outpacing us in math and science achievement.
 
In the 2006, Program in International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranked 21st of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in science and 25th of 30 in mathematics (9). PISA is a system of international assessments that focus on 15-year-olds’ capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. It’s administered every three years, data collection for 2009 happened from September to November 2008, the results will be published December 2010. The reason why the PISA results are so important is because it doesn’t just gauge what students know but also how they apply what they know to real world applications.
 
While the United States ranking in the PISA studies are often cited in mainstream media as a national disgrace, there are some critics that disagree with the interpretations of those findings by arguing that the PISA doesn’t actually measure what students know. Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution scholar and member of the U.S. Advisory Board to PISA argues that a key failing of PISA is that “it does not measure what kids have learned in school.” Why? Because PISA is written by progressives who want to make math instruction more relevant to the real world and emphasizes mathematical reasoning more than calculation. Loveless, who refers to himself as more of a traditionalist, critiques that you can’t reason well without mastering the fundamentals. He dislikes the traditional approach being referred to as “shopkeeper” math and remarks “like it was old fashioned to try to compute anything.” He prefers the other major international test, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which he says aligns more closely with the way U.S. students are taught.
 
In the 2007 TIMSS results, the eighth graders in United States ranked 11th of 36 in mathematical and science scores. TIMSS focuses on the mathematics and science achievement of students. The assessment draws its content directly from the school curriculum and is designed to assess how well students have learned what they have been directly taught.
 
I don’t see how a direct comparison of the two international tests is at all comparable; if anything, I see the two as complementary. Clearly, we’re not doing such a bad job at teaching the fundamentals but there’s a significant disparity between the learning and the application that I find interesting. The problem I have with people who argue for the traditional mode of instruction is that the conversation is usually predicated on “if it worked for me and my forefathers, than it should be good enough for everyone else forever.” And as Hammond eloquently argues, we’re not living in a time where just “knowing” is good enough.
 
Historically public education didn’t take off until after the Industrial Revolution, with the invention of various machines there wasn’t enough people in the workforce who could read, write and cipher. Some of the first public schools were opened primarily to educate the workforce and to create better workers for the factories. I still here that same rhetoric from some of our politicians, that all our students need are the three R’s: reading, writing and a’rithmetic.
 
The math disparity in the United States really affected me as a young student during one of my many moves. Due to being an Army brat, I had to move a lot, the average time I spend at a school was about 2 years, it was usually a year and a half. As a result, I had the opportunity to experience the array of public school systems the United States had to offer in Louisana, Kansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Washington.
 
In my sixth grade year, I moved from Lawton, Ok back to Seoul, S. Korea and was enrolled in an English speaking private school in Uijongbu, Liberty Christian School. While it was a Western school, they had modeled their academics on the Korean curriculum which means I went from learning long division and multiplication to being introduced to geometry, advanced algebra and beginning trigonometry. I came in about halfway through the school year and by the time it ended, technically, I had failed Math and there was some talk about holding me back a year however my parents promised that I would be enrolled in a summer school program and be completely caught up by the beginning of my seventh grade year.
 
So, I spent 3 months, 5 days a week, catching up on a wealth of arithmetic. That next school year, seventh grade, I had sufficiently caught up and we were learning advanced trig/beginning calculus; before that year ended I was caught up in a another move which took me to Horace Mann Jr. High in Tacoma, Washington where I completed seventh grade, since I was coming in almost at the end of a school season there was no more room in the seventh grade math and science classes and so I was placed in the eighth grade classes, where they were learning beginning algebra. It was if I had come full circle.
 
However, the United States isn’t really moving in that same direction; while our wealthier schools are able to enjoy progressive teaching techniques and access to the information that moves a student from high school to college; the schools that are operating in our inner cities and rural areas are operating with appalling deficiencies and are currently acting as feeders into either our criminal justice system or adding to our growing class of the working poor.
 
Hammond’s argument especially brings her points together when she outlines what some of the effects of our education inequalities have wrought us. In an increasingly technological world, some of the most desirable jobs are ones that require an advanced degree in math or science and what’s even more is that most jobs today require at least some knowledge of computers and how to use them. And yes, you can save your pennies and go buy one for yourself but there’s a difference in someone using a computer recreationally and someone whose consistently forced to use one with certain expectations from teachers that lets you use certain programs and requiring you to learn and do certain tasks that all pertain to a shared use knowledge.
 
She highlights the growing demand for workers with an H1-B visa, which is the visa that is used to bring specialized workers into the United States, used primarily by the software industry to fill computer programming, computer engineering and coding positions. The common criticism that I hear about big software companies hiring non-American programming workers is that either these companies are just not looking hard enough for American workers or that their underpaying the foreign workers to get cheap labor. As someone whose been involved in the computer programming industry, that’s just not true. American college graduates with degrees in computer engineering are typically hired before they graduate. While there may be a lack of jobs within certain tech sectors in this economy, such as network administrators, graphic designers, etc., there has never been a lack of work for computer programmers and engineers. We complain about the practice of hiring foreign workers but do nothing, in practice, that would fix the problem.

This problem also addresses a critique of the international assessments’ that’s frequently asked, “Is it fair to compare our students with international ones?” And it’s a fair question, different countries have different educational models, other ways of tracking their students, differences in student populations, etc. But with our ever shrinking globe, for all intents and purposes, these international students are their peers. In an increasingly global marketplace, you’re not just competing with your national peers, not when companies go out of their way to recruit international workers.
 
The phrase that Hammond uses, “lack of investment in American youth” really hit home for me. Lack of investment also connotes, at least to me, lack of trust, lack of worth. We spend more money in the processing and housing of our criminals than we do in our education system. We spend $44 billion annually on corrections. High school dropouts cost the country $200 billion in lost wages and taxes. In the current economic climate, that’s money I think we could really use right now.
 
Hammond ends her first chapter on a very hopeful note, she lists some ideas of what we can do to create a system of education that’s equitable to all children and goes into detail further in the book. She lists such things as secure housing, food and health care, supportive early learning environments, well-prepared and well-supported teachers, and standards, curriculums focused on 21st century learning goals (26) among others. What’s heartening is that there are people and schools across the country who are actively trying to achieve those goals: The Harlem Children’s Zone, Michelle Rhee, the Washington DC Superintendant of Schools and countless other charter and magnet schools in addition to the faceless teachers that go to class everyday and work hard at connecting with their students.
 
President Obama has revealed recently in his budget outline that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) would be undergoing a major overhaul and abandoning the goal of 2014 for every American child to achieve academic proficiency and replacing it with whether students are graduating high school “college and career ready”. While the new goal is vague, it can at least be worked with unlike the former. We can’t wait for partisan bickering to end or keep looking to the federal government to solve our problems, it has to the communities that band together and decide what they ultimately want for their children.
 
While I have a belief that the United States is in need of some type of national standard, I really believe that the inequity has to be dealt with an a much smaller scale, the federal government can only do so much. We have a tendency in the United States to go for the easy, one size fits all solution and if someone falls outside of those boundaries then it’s up to them to work harder to overcome them. That might even be a workable compromise, if most of our kids were being adequately served for the education system and it’s clear that it’s not. Another piece of ‘folksy’ wisdom that’s espoused is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; well, it’s becoming increasingly that something is ‘broke’ within our education system and if we don’t take the time to seriously address them; we’ll continue to lose more and more kids.
 
 

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