American Education Part II: The Critical Questions

Education in the U.S. faces several critical questions, the answers to which help define the path forward.

Last week, we looked at a high-level overview of the education system in the U.S., how it’s doing, and where it stands relative to its past self and to international programs. A look at all aspects of education could be infinitely complicated, so to focus further discussion we’ll look at the questions that are most critical to determining how education can be improved.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

How can education drive a culture that values it?

The reality is that a quality education is not something that a school alone can provide, and thus this question is paramount. From an early age, parents and their attitudes toward education are going to shape a child’s view and the focus and energy that they exert toward it.

The uncomfortable truth of a lot of the relationships in outcomes that we spoke about last week are driven by the cultural attitude toward education. Whether or not the attention and focus on education is quantifiable, the tie between the two is unquestionable. A child inherently learns what to value from his or her parents and uses that and other cultural influences to determine the value of goods and the effort to put forth. So we can talk all we want about fixing inequalities that exist between rich and poor children, white, brown, and black, et cetera. But until that individual child has parents and a community that see strong educational achievement as one of the highest priorities, that child will be disadvantaged.

Related to this, one solution worth remembering is that it will help if schools put forth a more compelling offering. The approach that says, “hey, this is required everyday, so just show up” has never convinced anyone to be excited about a product. We’ll dive into this more in a future article, but having a product backed with passion and a vision is essential, as is a degree of competency and an uncompromising will to deliver on that vision.

How much segmentation of treatments and outcomes is optimal?

Also important is how our system handles a population of drastically different abilities. As student’s academic capability grows over time, it also diverges: top students grow at a quicker rate, which compounds as each year passes. Ultimately, it becomes necessary to segment high performing students away.

But our current system has huge variance in when and how this happens. Rural schools may keep all students together through high school, while urban areas face a bevy of choices that allow segmentation even in kindergarten via expensive private schools with test-based admission. Most could probably agree that neither extreme is optimal. Yet the reality is that an education system does need to segment at some point while still being careful to drive education forward in all groups. While our current answer is haphazard, the technology-driven future we face demands better answers.

How do we build a more dynamic system that can adapt to a changing world?

The system we have in the U.S. is unequivocally slow and resistant to change. The nature of education demands this to a degree, and yet the system we have now is adverse to innovation and slow to adapt to a world drastically different than it was just twenty years ago and in desperate need of new skills and paradigms of thought. Examples of this include computer programming, statistics and data analytics, secondary language skills, and worldwide cultures.

So while it is easy to say that we should start to teach these at once, the reality is the world will change yet again resulting in new skills and subjects that should be taught. To drive lasting change, the system needs to become more adaptive and dynamic so that it can respond to a changing world much quicker than our system today.

How do we reduce the bias in outcomes due to uncontrollable factors (income, race, gender)?

The gaps in performance due to uncontrollable factors was covered extensively last week. While incubating and growing a education-positive culture is critical (as noted above), it is not a full answer to an essential prompt: how can we ensure that every child has as good a chance at success as possible.

Right now, the system unequivocally fails a predictable group in a way that culture alone cannot explain. Special attention and likely special funds are needed to help this, but so is a game plan. While programs like Teach for America have helped, the data (also covered last week) shows that improvement has been slow and that a very large gap in outcomes still exists.

How do we improve the quality of teachers?

Lastly, another clear reality is that the U.S. does not send its top performers into teaching. Largely for the better, the U.S. provides so many other incredibly valuable opportunities for top performers that teaching as a profession has become a haven for those who under-performed.

Does that sound like an attack on U.S. educators? It is. Indeed, data backs this up: according to a McKinsey report, only 23% of U.S. educators come from the top third of academic performers, contrasted to almost 100% in countries with stronger education systems like Singapore, Finland, and South Korea.

Solving this is going to be complex, but the problem is simple: a system that lets yesterday’s poor performers become tomorrow’s educators is doomed to be one facing a chronic headwind of incompetence. Coming full circle, a program mired by a lack of ability is never going to be able to create a culture that values it.


Next week will likely return to the series on political philosophy as each of these topics will take a bit more time to research these questions and potential approaches. In the meantime – what do you think? Are there other questions we need to consider in evaluating our education system? If you have thoughts, leave a comment below!


Also published on Medium.

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