Why our Educational System Lags Behind: National Values and Education

By Elizabeth Perelstein, School Choice International

How can we compete with India and China when we value athletic prowess, fashion and trendy music above education? According to New York City Chancellor Joel Klein “Those countries that are doing best are recruiting their K-12 teachers from the top third of their college graduates.  America is recruiting our teachers generally from the bottom third… I pay teachers, basically, based on length of service…I can’t, by contract, pay math and science teachers more…” (Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2009).


Historical View of Education Reform:

Throughout United States history, we have instituted periodic educational reforms, largely in response to crisis and generally by introducing standards.

–       Sputnik era (1957) produced unanimous recognition that we needed better schooling to compete against Russia, but reforms focused on bringing up the floor, rather than challenging advanced students.

–       In 1983 the U.S. Department of Education released a report called “A Nation at Risk,” causing another wave of reforms targeting the underperforming.

–       The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 resulted in similar action targeted towards weaker students.



Teaching to the Test: Following No Child Left Behind, teachers throughout United States public schools began “teaching to the test” in order to raise evaluations and certain states actually lowered standards hoping to flaunt better performance.

Skewed View of Equality: The concept of “equality” can also be an issue. Our democratic system has positioned education as the great equalizer.  Equality of education has long been considered a vehicle to foster the equal occupational and financial opportunities intrinsic to our democratic values.  Confusion between equality of curriculum, racial equality and equality of outcomes, however, has obfuscated our educational goals.

Ill Performing Gifted Programs: For the most part, education for advanced learners has been uninspired—a poor attempt to develop inquisitive minds. In the actual classroom, high achieving children are most often given more work—rather than more interesting work—to keep them busy and enable the teacher to focus on those who “need her attention.”

The Challenge to Value our Gifted Learners: The Social Aspect of Being “Smart:” Being “smart” can be taboo; some students hide their intelligence and pursue more socially acceptable activities, believing that they can successfully “fit in” by foregoing interest in learning. We worked with a boy with an IQ of 165.  In elementary school he read Scientific American and became a chess champion.  Hoping to achieve popularity during adolescence, he abandoned these pursuits in favor of football.  His teenage years were marked by failed classes and behavioral difficulties as he tried to be someone other than himself. Peer pressure causes children to sink to the least common denominator, rather than cultivating the brightest minds.



Until our country recognizes intelligence as a positive attribute and feels comfortable fostering our highest achievers regardless of race or socioeconomic class, the United States cannot compete with countries that identify and train their brightest to accomplish their utmost.


3 Responses to Why our Educational System Lags Behind: National Values and Education

  1. Jeannie says:

    I agree with this article totally!
    Does anyone have any information or articles on improving math and science instruction for girls in grades 6-12? Thanks.

  2. Karen Holloman says:

    Very interesting article, and I feel sad for the boy’s parents. As the mother of three boys. I have a lot more articles on educating boys, but in them, they often mention how well girls are doing. Here is one example – http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1647452,00.html. Here is another article on teaching boys and girls separately – http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/magazine/02sex3-t.html?_r=1&ex=1205298000&en=fe8200c380891ab8&ei=5070&emc=eta1

  3. Judy C. says:

    Liz has raised some very interesting points highlighting several areas of discussion and debate about the Amercian education system versus other education systems around the globe. There is the North American drive to ensure all children will be successful inspiring an often sarcastic phrase in schools and in sports that “everyone is a winner”. I am a strong advocate of finding ways to help all children realize their potential and develop their strengths but I do see that it is the students who are so strong academically who are often ignored time wise in the classrooms as well as financially as the shrinking school budgets are allocated to other groups. Even though we know North American students are lagging behind students from other countries, why is it that so many students are burning out in our school systems? Several Autralian expat familes in California are complaining about the amount of homework their children receive (in both private and public schools). Local families are beginning to complain too yet are upset about the ranking of schools and the success rate of the students.

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