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    America Gets an "F" in Education


         I am the daughter and student of a Polish immigrant. My mother came to the United States when she was twenty three, after graduating a polish high school and attending some college. In Poland, she was considered average. In America, she could outperform most on a standardized test. Too often do Americans compare themselves only to each other, as we fail to recognize that the "best and brightest" are no longer Americans. The American education system fails many. I see its failings in High School graduates who have neither the ambition nor the knowledge to compose fluent sentences. I see it in a college professor I know who was surprised to learn how World War II started. We are quick to point fingers, but slow to fix problems. First, we need to appreciate the full extent of our problems. Then, we need a game plan that will halt our path toward educational decline.
         America falls behind many countries in math, literacy, and science. This is not just a compliment to other countries, it is an indictment of the United States. We boast our perceived place as number one, but, we aren't number one in anything but over-confidence. Politicians and their constituents often shout that English should be declared our official language to force immigrants to learn English. In reality, though, the people who need more English classes are Americans. According to the Nation's Report Card, only twenty four percent of twelfth-graders’ writing was “proficient” and only one percent could meet the standard of a "sophisticated, well-organized" essay (The National Center for Education Statistics 1). Over thirty percent of Americans have to take remedial college classes in math (Friedman 108).

         Everyone deserves some blame for this under-performance: teachers, parents, and students. We are supposed to be a bold country, willing to be innovative and demand the best. But we don’t do that. In fact, even the teachers we look to as saviors might be some of the least intelligent college graduates.
          CBS News declares Education the “easiest” college major. Education majors received the lowest average SAT scores of any college major, but they somehow are handed high grades once in college (O'Shaughnessy). It seems that education professors are too lenient with their grades, giving an easy ride to the ones whom we should most scrutinize. Then, if everyone gets an “A for effort,” schools later have a hard time finding who truly excels. Shouldn’t the people who teach our children be passionate, intellectual role models instead of individuals only looking to earn a degree?
         In addition to our lenience with grading, the United States does not even select teachers from the top of graduating classes. We select our teachers from the top two-thirds of their graduating classes(top 66 percent), while the most successful countries all select from the top third, some even stricter (Barber & Mourshed 17). By not being selective, we have de-glamorized the teaching profession. The brightest students do not want to strive for a profession that is easy to enter and that doesn’t provide many opportunities. Adults and students also lose respect for teachers. Other countries that outperform us have remedied this problem by finding ways to attract enthusiastic and intelligent teachers. In other countries, teaching is viewed as an esteemed profession—one that many students aspire to hold. After realizing that things like reducing class size and increasing spending do not have an effect on performance, other countries have focused on finding great teachers, concluding that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” (Barber & Mourshed 16).
         In 2007, PISA(Programme for International Student Assessment) measured how fifteen-year-olds across the globe perform in math, reading, and science. The U.S scored either average, or below average. Finland, one of the top performers, selects its teachers from the top ten percent of college graduates. Another high-scorer, South Korea, is even stricter, choosing only from the top five percent. These countries also put up more hurdles to earning a teaching position than we do. After only considering the top ten percent of graduates, to hire a teacher for a university, Finland starts with a national screening in which prospective teachers take a 300-question test. They then only consider the top twenty percent of those scorers. Then they interview them and watch them in action with demonstrations. After these steps, they are recruited by schools. This study suggests that policies greatly contribute to finding effective teachers who students will respect. However, some of this reverence is also cultural. In Asian countries, Confucianism instills respect toward those who teach (Barber & Mourshed 17-23).
         In America, it seems that parents and students are often at-odds with teachers. Students say the teacher “can’t teach,” and parents use their kids’ complaints to blame teachers for their child’s poor performance. My mother, Wiesia Mills, expressed to me that Polish parents would almost always side with a teacher and value his or her professional opinion or criticism. Only one time did her own mother break the parent-teacher alliance, after “a teacher slapped [her] in the face and gave [her] an F,” for pulling out of a school chorus that wasn’t even part of the class in which my mom had all A’s. Another teacher also hit her in the head with a stack of books, so Polish schools may not be the best place to avoid assault, but they did some things effectively (Mills).
         Polish schools hammered the core curriculum. Elementary, Middle, and High School students had math, language, science, and history every semester. Each semester built upon knowledge from the previous (Mills). Here in Huntington, WV, High School students celebrated being “done” with math classes at 9th or 10th grade, but were they all truly comfortable with the material? Were they prepared for college-level math?
         My mom, my homeschooling teacher, would confirm that I have been far from a perfect student. Especially during my pre-teen and early teen years, I didn’t have the ambition I should have had. Luckily, though, even when I felt like being lazy, my mom—my math teacher–pushed me to work, and my dad—my English teacher— always found innovative ways to spark my creativity. But for those who don’t have intelligent, caring parents as I’ve been fortunate to have, it is easy to fall into the trap of slacking off, especially when school teachers show little interest. Therefore, I think parents have a vital role to play before and after their kids begin school, and many U.S parents may not be properly motivating their kids to learn.
         For example, in the U.S, there is a clear correlation between parental education and child academic success. Children from homes with over two bookshelves full of books, on average, score two and a half grade-levels higher than children from homes with few books. In That Used To Be Us, U.S Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, reflects on a telling conversation between President Obama and President Lee of South Korea. President Obama asked the leader to identify his “biggest challenge.” President Lee responded by saying that his Korean parents have always been “too demanding.” Even as president, Lee’s parents urged him not to become complacent. Secretary Duncan concluded, “I wish my biggest challenge...[were] too many parents demanding academic rigor” (Friedman 124-125).
         In 2011, President Lee recommended that the Korean school system give students Saturdays off, an ending to a long tradition of attending school on Saturday. He proposed this in order to encourage students to pursue outside interests and “wean the school system off its obsession with standardized tests.”An eleven-year-old girl, Charlie, took fifteen hours of math and English every week and protested against the day off—a different reaction, I imagine, than we would receive from American students. Parents demanded more English teachers so their kids could learn English in first grade instead of waiting until second grade. In America, we don’t often see that kind of determination, and we see few kids like Charlie (Sangim & Kim).
         Speaking of academic laziness, in her controversial article, My lazy American students, college professor Kara Miller expresses frustration with students who lack ambition. “I know I’ve gotten behind this semester, but I’m going to turn things around. Would it be OK if I finished all my uncompleted work by monday?” a student asked Miller. She received the same pleas and promises from other students and none of them showed improvement. She also criticizes college students’ bad habits, like staying up late to play video games (Miller). As a college student, I can expand on the “bad habits” criticism. I constantly hear classmates either bragging about how much they drank the night before and complaining about their hangovers, or discussing their future drinking plans and their future hangovers. I know there are many students who work hard and are blanketed with not-so-flattering stereotypes, but I think, many times, the “party” stereotype proves true. If these students picked up their books as often as their drinks, they might be able to excel. When in class, some of my fellow students also seem to find texting more important than the lecture, another disrespectful and detrimental habit Miller complains about. So while this article was met with outrage from many, I think it speaks some truth.
         Miller goes on to say that her foreign students’ work ethic puts many American students to shame. Even with their “language barrier,” Miller says they are prepared, and enthusiastic about writing papers in English (Miller). In our conversation, my mom cited American students’ desire to become independent as a detrimental factor in their education. “Kids in high school want to get cars and their families don’t have money, so they have to work and that takes away time from studying and focusing on school,” she noticed (Mills). This makes me think that the foreign students who study in the U.S may not be accustomed to going out and staying up late, so they have no desire to do so once in the United States. Maybe, again, this goes back to parenting. While parents can’t always and shouldn’t always control their kids, I believe they can somehow instill positive habits when it comes to learning and studying.
         Another interesting opinion article written by a chinese mother caught readers’ attention. Amy Chua is a self-described “tiger mother,” who most would argue takes an extremist approach to parenting. Her kids cannot have sleepovers or “play dates,” they have to play the piano and violin, they must have A’s in every class, and they have to be the number one student in every subject; Chua only makes an exemption for drama and gym.(Friedman 124) She was providing the recipe for the stereotypically successful Asian student, an assertion other Asian mothers condemned, as they were not as strict. However, studies have found that this approach actually does not produce the perfect child, because he or she is more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and the same academic results could be achieved by being a “authoritative parent.” Adams’ article in Forbes classifies parents into four categories: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and negligent. Authoritative parents are those who allow the child freedom, but also “exercise their own power.” (Adams) Maybe somewhere halfway between “tiger mom” and typical American parent would be an smart balance.
         Overall, I don’t think our crumbling system is just the teachers’ fault, just the students’ fault, or just the parents’ fault. As a nation, we haven’t set our standards high enough. We have become satisfied with scraping by instead of soaring ahead. We have become a nation in which passing failing students to the next grade is an easier solution than taking time to lead them to academic success. We aren’t fulfilling our commitment to education. I don’t believe we can wave a magic wand and heal our broken system, but what we can do is instigate debate, and ask important questions.
         How can America produce more driven, passionate students like Charlie from South Korea? What can parents and schools do to create these types of students? Are we going to settle for mediocre teachers, or follow in Finland’s footsteps and only chose the elites of the field? We will never receive answers to these questions if we don’t ask them, and ask them loudly. We must be a nation that cares. We must be a nation that doesn’t give up. Malcolm X once profoundly said that "education is our passport to the future." As a country, we have to be willing to take the journey.



    Adams, Susan. "Tiger Moms Don't Raise Superior Kids." Forbes. N.p., 8 May 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.


    Barber, Michael, and Mona Mourshed. How the Word's Best Performing Schools Come out on Top. Mckinsey & Company, Sept. 2007. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.


    Friedman, Thomas, and Michael Mandelbaum. That Used To Be Us. New York City: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011. 99-152. Print.


    Han, Sangim, and Rose Kim. "South Koreans Balk at Saturdays Without School." Businessweek. N.p., 7 July 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.


    Miller, Kara. "My lazy American students." N.p., 21 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.


    Mills, Wiesia. Personal Interview. 11 Nov 2013.


    O'Shaughnessy, Lynn. "Here's The Nation's Easiest College Major." CBS News. N.p., 20 June 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.


    The National Center for Education Statistics (2012). The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2011 (NCES 2012–470).


    Woessmann, Ludger. "Why Students in Some Countries Do Better." Education Matters 1.2 (2001): 67-74+. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.            

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