The strength of American education is that for 400 years we have allowed and encouraged people to self-educate. That doesn’t mean the schools are the cause. However, neither did they fully ruin that, and bad as they were and are, they seem to be better than everyone else’s right up to the present day. Most places in the world, even now, discourage or even forbid many children from rising above their station with either formal or informal education. Just having a good attitude about that has probably helped America a lot.
Let me talk out of both sides of my mouth again.
Black education today is terrible in some places. I’m not sure many African-Americans would maintain that it was better 50 or 100 years ago.
Anyone with an educational difficulty of any kind might also have complaints about current school offerings, but compared to 1932 or 1952? Please. My younger brother had a special program in elementary school – they put his desk in the hall. In the tracked classes he was put in the bottom track of 17. He wasn’t badly ADD, but it was compounded by being only three weeks short of the age cutoff for his class, and his poor fine-motor skills. He went on to teach college, after a long and winding road. Schools missed a lot of kids then. They missed bad hearing and bad eyesight. They missed identifying any spatial skills until well into high school. The escape route was often that people, especially boys, figured out that there were other ways to get ahead, before “To get a good job, get a good education” became a perpetual, and misleading, public service announcement. Also people were more used to careers being built outside of school and so accepted it more. In contrast, a young friend who teaches English at a suburban high school brought in a speaker to encourage consideration of trades. She was told by her principal to never do that again.
Still, I don’t know that’s the fault of the schools precisely, though they contributed to it.
Then there’s the corporal punishment – some of it relatively mild and merely uncomfortable and perhaps not very damaging, some of it assault and abuse.
Plus! Public shaming as a primary tool for encouraging children to work harder and do better. Because mild embarrassment motivates some of the better students, significant humiliation must work on the others. Now that makes sense. That was one of the brilliant pedagogical techniques of earlier eras. It is largely the people who were not abused and shamed who remember education so fondly now. Myself, I remember that they didn’t like boys very much.
I mentioned in the previous posts the lack of educative bang for the buck we got from many of the extras in the old days, such as penmanship, and coloring as the default geography activity.
That’s a lot for Old-Timey Education to overcome if it wants to be considered superior to the current model.
As long as I can remember, we have been subjected to news stories every year of how American students only rank 20th in the world, or 13th out of 15 wealthy countries in math, reading, and science. We then have a collective moaning about how far we are falling behind the world, with every interest group insisting they know how to fix it: by hiring more of their interest group, be they aromatherapists or small-business owners to fix the classroom. Alternatively, people tout their various theories. The Finns and Estonians do so well because they are so laid-back and permissive. But The South Koreans and Chinese do so well because they drill their kids so hard. It seems we are hard to please. The breathless media accounts are usually based on the Programme for International Student Assessment, given to 15 y/o’s every year. It’s a good test, but if you don’t break it down by race it greatly deceives. If you scroll to the bottom of that Wikipedia article, you will see that American results are broken out by race. Do not be amazed that this is allowed. It’s a big deal in educational circles, trying to “close the testing gap.” They have to advertise this to get more money. Everyone else wants to cover it up to have less argument. I think the tension between highlighting and covering up is worsening, BTW.
It’s just a little dated, but Steve Sailer put the list in more simplified form a few years ago, so you don’t have to keep scrolling back and forth between charts. It appears that Americans do very well indeed. Asian-Americans outscore Asians, except for magnet cities. European-Americans outscore Europeans, with few exceptions. The lower numbers for Hispanic-Americans would be discouraging, except that one sees they far outscore all Latin-American countries. We have almost no data for Africa and the Caribbean, but what we have shows all of them far, far behind African-Americans. The theory that environment in general, and schools in specific, matter more at the tail end of ability than at the top seems to bear out.
It is unlikely to be primarily schools creating the advantage. The American belief in self-education, in-school or out, is likely the driver. Yet the schools are at least not destroying that advantage. I worry about attention spans – yet that is not the fault of the schools. I worry about much of the content being taught – until I remember that students seldom buy what the adults are selling anyway. I worry about the butchery of boys, especially now that the non-school escape routes have less status. That is on the schools more, but generally they are only echoing the values we insist on, overvaluing conscientiousness, over-reliance on credentialing, over-emphasis on sports and entertainment.