My morning began (after checking email, of course!) with reading several articles about education. An editorial in the New York Times commemorates the 25th anniversary of the publication of "A Nation at Risk", the report of a national commission in response to “the widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.” I had forgotten about the report and what it found, except that - contrary to what the administration expected - it corroborated the public perception. What was interesting about today's article was the before/after discussion of one of the report's conclusions: that a strong educational system focussed on "the basics" would result in greater economic competitiveness. American educators back in 1981 were very concerned about being outstripped by the much higher-performing, rigorous Japanese and Korean school systems. But then the American economy improved, while the Asian economies began to falter:
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear that the link between educational excellence and economic security is not as simple as “A Nation at Risk” made it seem. By the mid-1980s, policymakers in Japan, South Korea and Singapore were already beginning to complain that their educational systems focused too much on rote learning and memorization. They continue to envy American schools because they teach creativity and the problem-solving skills critical to prospering in the global economy.
Indeed, a consensus seems to be emerging among educational experts around the world that American schools operate within the context of an enabling environment — an open economy, strong legal and banking systems, an entrepreneurial culture — conducive to economic progress.
To put it bluntly, American students may not know as much as their counterparts around the Pacific Rim, but our society allows them to make better use of what they do know. The question now is whether this historic advantage will suffice at a time when knowledge of math, science and technology is becoming increasingly critical. Maybe we need both the enabling environment and more rigor in these areas.
My question, on reading this, is much broader: should the purpose of an educational system even be economic competitiveness? Does it distress anyone besides me that this is stated so bluntly as a given fact? First, who benefits from such a goal, and how? Are we raising children who are capable of thinking about the effect of globalization, for instance, or children whose primary goal is to make as much money as possible; i.e., are we raising yet another generation of capitalist consumers, or world citizens? On the other hand, I know that many young people today are quite idealistic - where are those values coming from? And is it only my perception that, 25 years later, an even greater percentage of kids are falling through the cracks, both in terms of secondary education and access to higher education, due to racial inequality, poverty, troubled family environments and many other factors?
What do you think? And I wonder if Canadian readers see differences between the stated goals of education between the two countries. In Quebec, at least, the values of the society are quite different, and it's hard for me not to think some of this comes from the focus of education, as well as what children learn at home.