Why our Educational System Lags Behind: National Values and Education

November 22, 2009

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.


You See, in India, Handwriting is Very Important…

September 4, 2009

I recently interviewed an American family about their experiences while living in India and sending a child to a local school. They told me a fascinating story (I’ve taken a few creative liberties, but the issues are the same).

Students in IndiaMom and Dad attended the parent-teacher meetings at an English-medium, independent school in India. They spoke briefly to each teacher: the “maths” teacher, the science teacher, the Hindi teacher and finally the English teacher. The English teacher said, “You’re daughter is lovely, but her accent is so thick that no one understands her. Also, she speaks too fast.” Well, Dad was perplexed, “Accent? What accent?”

Then the teacher went on to talk about writing. She said, “Your child’s handwriting is very messy and I always have to take points off.” Mom and Dad were not too concerned about handwriting and asked instead about the content of her writing, but the teacher continued to speak about handwriting. “Your daughter must use a computer at home?”

“Well… yes,” Mom replied.

“Does everyone have a computer in the United States? In India, children do not have computers, so handwriting is very important.”

Not sure what to say, mom replied, “But what about the subject matter of her writing?”

The teacher continued, “You see, in India, handwriting is very important because we are preparing our children for The Boards*, and their handwriting must be legible in order to be graded.”

“But she won’t be taking The Boards.”

“She won’t?”

“She will be moving back to the United States.”

The parents ended the story with a laugh, “well, she had much better handwriting when she returned to the United States!”

In a way, the tale is funny, but it’s also telling of educational values. While the parents were trying to find out about the content of their child’s writing, which usually constitutes the most important aspect of writing in the American educational system, the teacher showed much more concern for her handwriting, crucial for passing exams that can open or close doors to higher education in India. The parents and teacher reached an impasse.

This anecdote illustrates important cultural differences in education, that can make an international education challenging. While the value may be a relatively small matter (who spends much time thinking about handwriting in the United States?), it can have serious implications (computers per capita definitely marks wealth disparity on a national level) and serious consequences (failing the all-important exams). These are the small factors parents might not even think to consider when choosing to send a child to a local school.

That being said, this particular child had an overwhelmingly positive, life-changing experience. School Choice International will post a video of the interview soon… tune in to find out more about this fantastic family.

See a video interview on the same family!

* Final exams given at the end of Class 10 and 12 through out India.