As a counterpoint to an article Thesis published on October 28th about waning literacy, numeracy, and ICT competence among American adults, the New York Times recently highlighted the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which found that American high-school students seem to be outperforming their international peers in the aforementioned subject areas. Namely, American high-school students in 36 states scored higher than the survey-generated international average in math, and the same demographic in a whopping 47 states achieved beyond the mean in science. Critics of the results were quick to note that the 38 countries participating in the survey did not include such powerhouses as China, India, France, or Germany, and that American students still did not fare nearly as well as their counterparts in East Asia (i.e. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, et al.). All the same, it would certainly seem as though these results allay several fears that Americans may have about the plight of our country’s educational system.
Such comparison-based studies as the one mentioned above are useful in that they help track how American students might – might – one day fare in the increasingly global job market, but do they really capture the entire picture? Read any forum on educational hot-topics, and you will surely become entrenched in the debates about whether or not testing is an accurate index of personal and/or systemic achievement and success. Some people will surely point to the fact that test-taking is more of a skill than an index of knowledge and will argue that the hyper-controlled testing environment places undue stress on students which undoubtedly skews results. These points are certainly apt and merit further discussion, discussion which, I’m afraid, I will not have a chance to develop here and now. That said, what I do hope to at least partially elucidate is the actual culture of learning, something which these studies may not be able to take into account but that may have a much greater bearing on a student’s future.
I hardly claim to be an expert on the sociology of the classroom, but it would seem that by and large, the American educational system fosters lines of communication between students and teachers that are more lateral than vertical in nature. Teachers are still regarded as figures of authority, of course, but American schools seem to champion educators who engage their students in dialogue rather than inculcate facts and dryly lecture to a sea of bored faces. The teacher as harsh enforcer will tell students to be; the teacher as guiding mentor, however, will tell students to become. There is teaching the absolute, and then there is fostering appreciation for nuance.
It would appear the American approach is primarily centered on the second of those oppositions: on letting students come into their own in their own terms. Sure, this approach drastically varies from the theory that teachers are supposed to manufacture students who are carbon-copy carriers of identical pools of knowledge. Maybe such a theory fosters a mindset which is more conducive to higher scores on standardized tests. I admit that I do not know. I also admit that American public schools have their fair share of challenges, including overcrowding, high drop-out rates, and on-campus violence. What I will say, though, is that it seems nearsighted to focus on a specific output of education (i.e. test results) in lieu of the more holistic atmosphere of education, especially since the latter may very well influence the former and may eventually inspire students to succeed outside of the testing room.