The news is out! The Chinese educational system
is not, as was supposed in many quarters, simply producing unimaginative, rote
learners to feed their burgeoning low-tech factories. The Program for
International Student Assessment (PISA) recently released the 2009 test results
in which the 15-year-old students from 65 nations competed in knowledge of
math, science and reading. This was the first year that Chinese authorities
allowed their students to compete, and they burst out of the gate with stellar
results, coming out on top in all
categories: math, reading and science.
The 5,100 Chinese students taking the test were
not representative of China as a whole, but rather were selected from the 20
million city of Shanghai, the academic and industrial hub of the nation. China’s
neighbors and trading partners around the world will probably take some comfort
from the thought that the rest of the Chinese teenagers are probably not up to
the standards of the Shanghai youngsters. It is doubtful in the extreme,
however, that a representative of US teenagers from our major cities, say New
York, Los Angeles and, oh, yes, the nation’s capital would come close to the
But how well did US students do? Short answer:
mired in the middle. Of the 65 nations whose students took the PISA tests, US 15
year-olds were 23rd in science; 24th in math; and 17th
in reading. This US performance was consistent with previous PISA results. Not
disgraceful, but hardly the stuff required of a nation hoping to maintain world
leadership in science, technology and trade.
If brain power is the coin of the “New World Order”,
two facts should deepen the US’s gloom about its mediocre academic performance.
One, there are 3-plus Chinese brains for every one US brain ready to go to
work. Two, the Chinese are just beginning their educational growth spurt.
The implications of the apparent superiority of
the Chinese educational system will not be lost on educators, policy-makers and
politicians in the West. In the US, the heavy breathing has already begun. The
New York Times has quoted President Obama as calling for a Sputnik-like
effort and an increased investment in math and science education since “America
is in danger of falling behind”. (Memo to the President: the US is already
behind!) Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s response was more
present-oriented: “We can quibble [with the results], or we can face the brutal
truth that we’re being out-educated.”
And so the campaign to again waken the sleeping
giant of American education is on. The New York Times, the Wall
Street Journal and other leading newspapers are on the case. Can special
issues of Time and Newsweek be far behind? “US Dunces Flunk
Again!!” and “China’s Education Missile is Aimed at US” The Education Lobby,
fueled by the teachers’ unions and grant-starved academics, can look afresh to
Washington and the foundation world to “bridge this dangerous education gap.” Once
more we will be treated to the old refrain of “send us the money and we’ll
solve the problem.” And once more, throwing money at our schools will not work.
It goes without saying that that a good
education has costs attached. The problem with the American schools, however, is
not money. We already spend substantially more money per pupil than our trading
partner nations. In 2009-2010 the National Education Association acknowledged
that the country’s per pupil expenditure average was US$10,306. The most
lavishly supported school district in the nation is Washington, DC schools and they
have the worst results. Estimates of DC’s yearly per pupil costs vary from
$18,275 to $28,169! In contrast, the state of Utah, which relatively speaking has
high achieving pupils, spent $6,095, less than one third of that spent on DC’s
Spending more money on US schools won’t solve
the problem and will distract from addressing the larger problem of our
schools, the character-corrupting culture in which we are bring up our
A culture of softness and laziness
Out of “the-goodness-of-our-hearts” and emanating
from a total lack of historical perspective and of understanding of human
nature, Americans have designed a disaster. They have put in place a system of
getting children ready for adult life that dooms them and the nation’s future
to mediocrity or worse. In a little more than a century, the US has moved from
a “work hard and survive” world to a “bread and circuses” world. We have gone
from a culture where real demands were made on students at home and in school
to one where homes and schools make only the mildest demands on children. Instead
adults have become eager providers of their children’s natural, but endless,
appetite for pleasure.
Whether in comfortable suburbs or urban
tenements, young Americans have become hooked on pleasure. They watch on
average four and a half hours of television a day, and spend endless minutes
and hours in idle conversation with peers through cell phones and social networking.
Except for the top 15 percent of serious students, the schools leave students
to their pleasures, making few demands on their time or mental energies. School
has become a place where you meet your friends rather than a place for serious
work. Home is merely a place for rest, entertainment and fueling.
And then there is sex, an issue that is much on
the minds of young people, but typically dodged by teachers and parents. How
does a teenager focus on a quadratic equation when the most lurid pornography
is just a few mouse clicks away or an actual sexual encounter is easily within
reach? While parents and school officials don’t like to acknowledge it, close
to half (48 percent) of American high school students “report” that before
graduating they have become sexually active (50 percent of males and 46 percent
of females). One of the results of their recreational sex (besides the highest
teen birthrate in the First World!) is that an estimated 9 million Americans
ages 15–24 are newly infected with an STD each year, with chlamydia and
gonorrhea being the most commonly acquired diseases.
Another striking indication of the increasing
moral corruption of schools is the rising incidences of cheating. In 1992, 61
percent of American students “admitted” to cheating on an exam during that
school year. By 2002, the percentage had risen to 74 percent. In that same
period, 1992 to 2002, the percentage of students who admitted lying to a
teacher during the past year increased from 69 percent to 83 percent.
The point is not that kids are rotten and
teachers are lazy and parents are idiots. Rather, that we have created the
wrong child-raising culture and the results are clearly confirming that. Trying
is change this culture will be like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier
steaming though the ocean at 30 knots. The captain can swing the steering wheel
for a radical change, but it takes about two miles before the ship actually makes
the course change. Even if a majority were to reject the current cultural
course and demand change, it will take years for true change to come about. Meanwhile
the commercial interests, daily getting fatter off the corruption of our
children, will dig in and fight reformers with everything at their disposal. That
said, here are a few suggestions toward a healthier school climate and
educational system for those who want to get started.
An agenda for teachers and parents
First, break the monopoly of the public school
system. Give parents back their tax money so they purchase the education they
believe is best for their children, whether secular private, religious, internet-delivered, home schooled or even old PS 22. Free up the system, but
make the results highly transparent.
Second, change the “work environment” and change
our expectations of students. Extend the school day until 5 in the afternoon as
so many other countries do. Extend the school year from 180 days to closer to
240. Without giving into the empty slogan “education should be fun!”, make schooling
more interesting and connected to their futures. Currently in the US, teachers
and students are obsessed with the results of paper and pencil objective tests
on reading, and math, an obsession which has blocked out time previously
devoted to art, literature, geography, history, music and physical education. It
is little wonder that students are seeking escapes and the educational
enterprise is so dispirited! The drill, drill, drill and test, test, test approach
is killing teachers and students alike.
Third, use school-parent contracts to get a new
set of student expectations in place. For instance, parents should be “under
contract” to provide a quiet, media free study place for their children. They
should strictly limit time and exposure to TV, to the internet and social
networking and anything that interferes with their children developing the
knowledge and the work habits the future will demand of them.
Fourth, re-empower teachers to be character
educators. Instead of the current model of teacher-as-information-dispenser,
teacher should be prepared and expected aggressively to teach children the good
habits or virtues we know constitute a worthy life, that is, habits of
responsibility, self-discipline, justice and respect for others. Educators
should recapture the tradition of teachers being in loco parentis. If some students are unable to accommodate the new,
more serious school environment, removed them to other, more structured
environments until they are ready to return. We owe that to both the offending
students, but also to the teachers and students who stay behind.
Fifth, de-sexualize school. Switch from the
current urban fashion to school uniforms. Outlaw foul language and “public displays
of affection” with has come to cover everything from groping, grinding and
worse. Leave “condom distribution” to the local drugstore. Teenagers, in
particular, always were and are hungry for romance. Nevertheless, schools
should be sex-free zones.
Sixth, the young need a meaning system, a worldview,
which is bigger than their own appetites. A nation of self-oriented pleasure-seekers
will have a short, inglorious future. It is a fundamental duty of parents to transmit
to their children an understanding of where they come from, who they are and
where they should be going. Churches are a great resource here. So are the
schools, religious and private, that are freed from the “science-only” worldview
of US public schools. Parents, however, have the ultimate responsibility to, as
a friend once said to me, help children escape the “Great Suck of Self.”
Great education is not about money or about test
scores. It is about inspiring the young with a realistic vision of what they
can become and engaging them in this demanding work.
founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston
University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books.
He has appeared on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning
America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting
System speaking on character education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.