Monday, April 28, 2008

The Future of American Power -- 1

There is engrossing reading over at in an essay The Future of American Power, by the always provocative Fareed Zakaria.

One characteristic of this article's appeal is that the ideas that crop up every two or three paragraphs call out for attendant essays. I won't have the presumption to write those essays, but I'd like to point out some paragraphs for commentary. Emphasis in the quoted paragraphs is mine.

The first topic is the U.S. educational system:
The U.S. system may be too lax when it comes to rigor and memorization, but it is very good at developing the critical faculties of the mind. It is surely this quality that goes some way in explaining why the United States produces so many entrepreneurs, inventors, and risk takers. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, until recently Singapore's minister of education, explains the difference between his country's system and that of the United States: "We both have meritocracies," Shanmugaratnam says. "Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. We know how to train people to take exams. You know how to use people's talents to the fullest. Both are important, but there are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well -- like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority." This is one reason that Singaporean officials recently visited U.S. schools to learn how to create a system that nurtures and rewards ingenuity, quick thinking, and problem solving. "Just by watching, you can see students are more engaged, instead of being spoon-fed all day," one Singaporean visitor told The Washington Post. While the United States marvels at Asia's test-taking skills, Asian governments come to the United States to figure out how to get their children to think.
So this gets me thinking about the current revolt against the current U.S. exam-based fashion. In Washington State, this exam regimen is WASL, and it is the bane of students and teachers alike.

The push towards standardized exams came when the current urban school culture proved unable to deal with the cultural demands placed on schools. Children were dumped on the school's doorstep every September; and teachers were expected to perform all of the socialization, disciplinary, and character-building tasks that used to be seen as the responsibility of the parents. It's tough to teach anything when kids can't read. It's tough to maintain classroom order when children haven't been taught self-discipline at home. And heaven help the teacher who disciplines some hysteric parent's little darling.

But apparently we are doing something right. A previous paragraph reads:
But the aggregate scores hide deep regional, racial, and socioeconomic variation. Poor and minority students score well below the U.S. average, while, as one study noted, "students in affluent suburban U.S. school districts score nearly as well as students in Singapore, the runaway leader on TIMSS math scores." The difference between the average science scores in poor and wealthy school districts within the United States, for instance, is four to five times as high as the difference between the U.S. and the Singaporean national average. In other words, the problem with U.S. education is a problem of inequality. This will, over time, translate into a competitiveness problem, because if the United States cannot educate and train a third of the working population to compete in a knowledge economy, this will drag down the country. But it does know what works.
And so we see that the problem isn't with our educational model, it's with a one-size-fits-all solution that attempts to apply a solution developed to monitor inner-city school performance to all schools everywhere.

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