American public education makes for an easy target for America’s woes. How often do we hear or read that American schools are in shambles, that our kids are not learning, that rather large minority student achievement gaps exist, or that we are falling behind the world in education. There is some merit to these complaints and claims, but on the flip side, like most things, there is also some good that comes from our public schools. For instance, our top science and math students can and do hold their own in international competition (last year, for example, the U.S. Physics Team won in international competition), we have the highest worker productivity in the world, record numbers of students are taking AP exams in high school, and the U.S. has one of the highest literacy rates in the world .
One aspect of our education system that is often overlooked is the amount of freedom students have, compared to students in other countries, to choose courses both in high school and college. Sure, there are graduation requirements in core subjects such as English, math, science, social studies and history. But there is also the choice of electives that we can take advantage of to pursue personal interests or to check out because of curiosity that forms a major strength of our education system. The U.S. does not presently require high-stakes testing that determines a career path or college choice. Even colleges look beyond SAT or ACT exams in a more portfolio-based admissions process.
This is not the case in other Western, industrialized nations or many Asian/Pacific nations, however. In Germany, for example, those students who will go on to the university are identified by the 4th grade year of school. The same type of national curriculum and/or exam and relatively early determination of the path an individual student is to take is done in Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, China, Singapore, and others. The results of a single exam or impressions of academic ability at a relatively early age largely determine the future of children in those countries. As an educator, this educational model disturbs me because I have seen firsthand numerous examples of students who are highly intelligent, but have test anxiety or work slowly to ensure they are correct, and these types of students do not do as well as they should on standardized exams. I know of many other young scholars who simply did not mature intellectually until their junior or senior year of high school, or even later in college, and then they were well on their way to successful careers in technical fields. If the U.S. had a similar system in place as the other countries mentioned above, these bright minds may very well have been stuck in a lower tier school or career, and the talents and potential contributions to society they may have made would never have a chance to be realized.
With the high-stakes testing brought about by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, I do have fears of a national testing system that parallels much of Europe and Asia. Whether or not this is part of the right’s agenda, I know it would be a terrible mistake to edge closer to those other models. We need academic freedom for all students, so they may discover and learn about the areas of study they love and are competent in, even if it takes one a little longer than the average. The Harvard educator Howard Gardner developed the theory of multiple intelligences back in 1983, and I am a firm believer in the concept behind his theory (although I would replace the word ‘intelligence’ with ‘competency’). Whatever the language, I think each of us knows we have certain strengths in some subjects and are noticeably weaker in other areas of study. But in the U.S. we have a chance to be exposed to all areas of study throughout our school years. We have the freedom to choose whether we pursue the sciences, math, languages, athletics, the arts, or other non-academic paths after high school. We discover what our ‘intelligences’ are and then pursue them, or perhaps even work and gain experience in other areas we are weaker in. Many nations do not allow their students these same options, at least not to the same extent as American students. In my mind the American public education model, even with the obvious problems that exist, has played a significant and overlooked role in our development as a superpower, because individuals choose what paths they take rather than the state, based on some exam result (it is interesting to note that the Brits, as of this year, are beginning to allow more personalization and breadth in their high school equivalent grades, as stated in an Education White Paper, perhaps influenced by the American model). Maintaining and strengthening our public education system is therefore vital to the future of the U.S. Without it and the academic freedom built into the system, I am convinced we will run the risk of losing our status and place as a global leader.