Solving America's education crisis

December 05, 2005|By J. GERALD SUAREZ

It took a trip to another country to put into perspective the fundamental weaknesses of the U.S. education system.

I lectured to a group of Chinese executives in Tianjin, China, a year ago and imagined that a translator and headsets would likely be necessary. This assumption was dispelled 30 minutes into class when the first hand went up and the questioner spoke in perfect English. During the first break, a few students asked me if they could practice their Spanish!

As a result, I am convinced that soon it will be the Americans who are wearing the headsets.

While we are diluting our language requirements for high school graduation and promulgating "English only" in our schools, the Chinese are focusing on developing a multilingual, cross-disciplinary curriculum designed to prepare their youths for participating in a global economy. If the level of sophistication of those listening to my lectures is any indication, China is in the throes of an education revolution that is working.

As a nation, we are facing an education crisis of epic proportions. The statistical trends that support the argument that the nation's education system is obsolete and that our students' future is at risk are alarming.

The United States ranks 16th among 20 developed nations in the percentage of students who complete high school and 14th among the top 20 in college graduation rates. The nation slipped from first to fifth internationally in the percentage of young people who hold a college degree. In math and science, American students are finding themselves ranked near the bottom of all students from industrialized nations by the time they reach the 12th grade.

To fix the problem, we need to shift from teaching to learning. Teaching can be an obstruction to learning. The academic environment in this century requires a shift away from good teaching, in the sense of good instruction, toward good learning, which is learning that is relevant, current, vibrant and enduring in terms of values, principles and depth.

Second, we must stop asking questions for which there is only one answer. It's the way we got through school and college, by providing the answers that were expected. The questions we ask should be those that encourage answers we don't expect, questions that stimulate creativity, innovation and independent thinking.

The role of educators should be to inspire, motivate, persuade, stimulate. Learning should be directed at helping students understand the why, not merely to recognize the what, when, where and how.

We can encourage this kind of thinking by designing curricula that cross subject boundaries. In our typical high school, we separate English from history from math from music from chemistry. Why? Is there no connection that we can make among these various disciplines?

For example, we teach about the Constitution in history class. But it's far more than a document of historic interest. It tells us a lot about the economics of the times, about human values and the aspirations of those who wrote it, about the law as they envisioned it. The language by itself is extraordinary.

It could easily be taught in English class, philosophy, government, sociology or economics. Why not look at it from all those perspectives at the same time? Why not, for example, bring in all the subject matter experts and have them explain what it is and how it worked then and now? Or better, have the students draft a constitution based on what they know at this point in their lives. How close would they come to the real thing? What would the differences say about life then and life now? And why?

I teach adults, so I understand something about adult learning. For my students, it's a lifelong pursuit or they wouldn't be there. We know this to be self-evident, and still we design schools as if they were something apart from the rest of living: There's K-12, then college or technical training, then we work and we raise families. Who is to say that education is not a lifelong activity? It sounds old-fashioned, but if we learn how to study, how to think critically, learning should never stop.

So are we up to the challenge of answering the rise of China and other nations?

Today, China's stealth capitalism is quietly reordering the world economic balance. Compiling more statistics about the slippage of the United States and the steady growth, expansion and development of China will not help us improve. We need to move beyond hand-wringing and establish a national policy that addresses the educational crisis we are facing.

National standardized testing, as noble as the original intention, is not going to save us. Limiting the number of jobs outsourced to Asia is not going to save us. What will save us, what will make the difference, is radical educational redesign that will prepare our children to function smartly in a global economy.

J. Gerald Suarez, an executive education senior fellow at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park, headed the first Presidential Quality Management Office at the White House from 1993 to 1998. His e-mail is

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