American education hopelessly falling behind

January 28, 2014 — by Candice Zheng
Photo by Helen Wong

Twenty-sixth place in mathematics, 17th in reading and 21st place in science. It’s no secret that American students are falling behind their international peers.

Twenty-sixth place in mathematics, 17th in reading and 21st place in science. It’s no secret that American students are falling behind their international peers.

Although SHS is an exception, it is still disconcerting to see how the U.S.’s foreign counterparts are outpacing us in almost every subject. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests administered last year placed the U.S. in the bottom half out of the 34 countries tested.

According to the PISA website, an average of $115,000 is spent per American student on their entire educational career. There is apparently no correlation between spending and test results, as Slovakia, which spends merely $53,000 per student, scored on the same level as the United States. This seemingly paradoxical observation leads to the question: what in the world are we doing wrong?

Many states have taken the mediocre scores to heart and initiated the Common Core State Standards in hope of spurring students’ intellectual progress and readiness for higher education and future careers. California accepted the initiative in 2010, and as of now, 45 states have adopted the Common Core standards, gradually fulfilling the goal of consistent and more challenging educational goals throughout the entire country.

Although in the early stages of its initiation, the Common Core has shown gradual, but promising results. Kentucky, the first state to actually implement the curriculum, has seen a notable increase in test scores, high school graduation rates, and college and career readiness since 2010.

Although it may be a bit too early to tell, the Common Core initiative seems to be taking a step in the right direction, pushing students to aim higher and learn more by the time of their high school graduation. However, the rate of improvement is not fast at all, and experts have pointed out that the “one size fits all” curriculum ignores learning nuances among students.

The U.S. deserves to be cut some slack, though. The U.S. harbors a huge variety of ethnic and socioeconomic groups that are hard to cater to under one national education system. Most of the high-achieving nations on the PISA test, including South Korea, Singapore and Finland, are largely ethnically homogeneous and hold the same social values, especially on education.

Thus, it’s difficult to say if the U.S.’s educational system is the issue. Compared the U.S., it is true that the top-scoring countries deploy very different educational methods. Many of the Asian countries that consistently place high on the PISA utilize a system with greater emphasis on testing and academic drilling, while Finland, another top scoring country, has a highly unorthodox school system where exams and homework are minimized. The U.S. seems to be muddled in the middle of these extremes and not succeeding at all.

The problem falls heavily on the shoulders of America’s youth culture. Still, to many American youths today, high achievement in academics is looked down upon, and huge emphasis is placed on sports, recreation and “what we are good at.” America’s educational system can do little to truly motivate students, even with the new Common Core standards. Juxtaposing this mentality with, say, China or South Korea, the student perspective is completely different.

In many of the consistently high-scoring countries, cultural emphasis on the relationship of education and success is highly stressed. For the many students in South Korea and China, school runs six days a week and most students stay in school or some kind of after school tutoring program to 10 at night. Grades are posted in classrooms for everyone to see, shaming the students with the lowest scores and lauding high performers.

However, for all the praise applauding the ability of these countries to churn out test-taking machines, there is criticism pointing out the lack of emphasis on innovation and creative freedom. America, despite its educational shortcomings, still remains a titan of innovation in the global market.

Yes, the American students are “falling behind.” But the United States was never “ahead” to begin with, having never scored above mediocre on any international assessment tests since the late 1900s. There is no best bet for a quick solution to the U.S.’s woeful scores, and a major educational upheaval is not practical nor guaranteed to be effective.

Students need to be motivated to do well in school, and frankly, many are not in an environment where school is placed as first priority. To change this problem, societal issues much more deep-rooted than our nation’s education system have to be evaluated and changed — no small feat indeed.

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