The Goal of Education in the US

I believe that the best business/schools/families have clear goals. This perspective is seen in books describing corporations like Good to Great (The best companies have clear goals), in Alfie Cohn’s in Unconditional Parenting (He asks, “What type of person do you want your child to be when they are an adult?”), and in School Leadership that Works: From Research to Results. So I tend to work from a clear goal when I think of schools. So, What’s the goal of your school?

In Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria recently wrote an article titled, We All Have a Lot to Learn. In it, he describes how he has been touring Asia for the past month and found it puzzling that East Asia has students who lead the world in Science and Math testing but are not as successful as Scientists and Mathematicians in the US. He explores this thought with the Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the minister of Education of Singapore, the country that is No. 1 in the global science and math rankings for schoolchildren. Here’s what Zakaria wrote:

I asked the minister how to explain the fact that even though Singapore’s students do so brilliantly on these tests, when you look at these same students 10 or 20 years later, few of them are worldbeaters anymore. Singapore has few truly top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, business executives or academics. American kids, by contrast, test much worse in the fourth and eighth grades but seem to do better later in life and in the real world. Why? “We both have meritocracies,” Shanmugaratnam said. “Yours is a talent meri tocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. 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. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.”

Shanmugaratnam also pointed out that American universities are unrivaled globally—and are getting better. “You have created a public-private partnership in tertiary education that is amazingly successful. The government provides massive funding, and private and public colleges compete, raising everyone’s standards.” Shanmugaratnam highlighted in particular the role that American foundations play. “Someone in society has to be focused on the long term, on maintaining excellence, on raising quality. You have this array of foundations—in fact, a whole tradition of civic-minded volunteerism—that fulfills this role. For example, you could not imagine American advances in biomedical sciences without the Howard Hughes Foundation.”

Let’s say that again, “America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.

and: “There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition.”

So that is why we are doing so well? “Yours is a talent meri tocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy.” As Singapore is trying to become more American and we’re trying to produce better test takers.

This story is a powerful example of why the US is so great, but a clear signal that other countries are studying what is great about our system and learning from us. We should be learning from them and observing what they are taking from us. Having the ability to look at research and implement it in your school is critical. Creating learning communities of faculty and students is critical. Involving students (at age appropriate levels) in making decisions about their education is critical.

So what should the goal of use education be:

  • Creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition
  • Life long learners.
  • Risk Takers
  • Respectful
  • Compassion
  • The list can go one — Add some in the comments.

How do we get there?
Don’t try to compete in global testing. NCLB seems to be trying to make us first in test taking as opposed to first in those unmeasurable characteristics that are listed above and give us our great advantage. John Penderson seems to say in this post that it’s going to take a long time to change the state requirements for NCLB, and who knows if that will change things for the better.

We need to create clear goals for our system, encourage students to become life long learners in whatever they are passionate about, and create competition for public schools. After reading Zakaria’s article, I’m more and more in support of private schools that compete with public ones. Charter school’s are a great idea. Competition with the reality that we are all working for the same goal, is critical. Sharing what we learn. Competition with transparency. We are here to make the world a better place, let’s do it.

2 thoughts on “The Goal of Education in the US

  1. Alex,

    Great post. You go a long way toward addressing some of my doubts about Tom Friedman’s thesis in The World is Flat. The US still has incredible strengths, and curiously and wonderfully, it appears that challenging authority and accepted wisdom is one of our key strengths. May it continue to be!



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