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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

'It makes no sense:' A dissection of Obama's education view

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Yong Zhao, presidential chair and associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon's College of Education, where he also serves as the director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education. He is a fellow of the International Academy for Education. Until December 2010, he was director of both the Center for Teaching and Technology and the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence at Michigan State University, as well as the executive director of the Confucius Institute/Institute for Chinese Teacher Education. This appeared on his blog.


By Yong Zhao
President Obama used the phrase "it makes no sense" more than once in his 2011 State of the Union speech. I like the sound of it and what lies behind it—a simple way to point out the obviously illogical things that need to change. That is how I feel about the education section of his speech. It makes no sense.

Obama said he wants to "win the future" by out-innovating, out-educating and out-building the rest of the world. "If we want to win the future -– if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas -– then we also have to win the race to educate our kids,” he said.

How to win the race to educate our kids? More math, more science, more high school diplomas, more college graduates, more Race to the Top, more standards and standardization, more carrots and clubs for teachers and schools, and no TV.

Why?

Because China and India “started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science;” because the "quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations;” and because “America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.”

None of these makes much sense to me because they are either factually false or logically confusing. For one, Obama suggested that parents make sure the TV is turned off. If every parent followed his suggestion and turned off the TV, there would be no one to watch his State of the Union next year. As with everything else, there is good TV and there is bad TV. More seriously, I did some fact checking and logical reasoning and here is what I found out.

Is it true that “China and India started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science?”

No, China has actually started to reduce study time for their children, with less emphasis on math and science.

I am not familiar with education in India so I will stick to China and I assume President Obama meant education in schools, not education at home. Unless he meant 50 years ago, the statement is false.

The school starting age in China has remained the same -- 6 years old -- since the 1980s when China’s first Compulsory Education Law was passed in 1986. Since the 1990s, China has launched a series of education reforms aimed at reducing school hours and decreasing emphasis on mathematics. According to a recent statement from the Ministry of Education (in Chinese):

"Since the implementation of the 'New Curriculum,' the total amount of class time during the compulsory education stage (grades 1 to 9) has been reduced by 380 class hours. During primary grades (grades 1 to 6), class time for mathematics has been reduced by 140 class hours, while 156 more class hours have been added for physical education. In high school, 347 class hours have been taken out of required courses and 410 class hours added for electives.

Is it true that “the quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations?”

It depends how one measures quality. If measured in terms of test scores on international assessments, yes, but these test scores do not necessarily indicate the quality of math and science education and certainly do not predict a nation’s economic prosperity or capacity for innovation.

When he says that “the quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations,” President Obama ignores the fact that American students performance on international tests have been pretty bad for a long time, and believe it or not, has got better in recent years.

In the 1960s, America’s 8th graders ranked 11th out of 12 countries and 12th graders ranked 12 out of 12 countries on the First International Mathematic Study. America’s 12th graders’ average score ranked 14th out of 18 countries that participated in the First International Science Study.

In the 1970s and 80s, America’s 12th graders did not do any better on the Second International Mathematics study, with ranks of 12, 14, 12, and 12 out of 15 educational systems (13 countries) on tests of number systems, algebra, geometry, and calculus respectively. On the Second International Science Study, American students’ performance was the worst (out of 13 countries with 14 education systems participating, America’s 12th graders ranked 14th in Biology, 12th in Chemistry, and 10th in Physics) (Data source, National Center for Educational Statistics).

In 1995, America’s 8th graders math scores were in 28th place on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. In 2003, they jumped to 15th, and in 2007, to 9th place.

Obama also said in his speech:

"Remember -– for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers — no workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We’re the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth."

So who has made America “the largest, most prosperous economy in the world?” Who are these most productive workers? Where did the people who created the successful companies come from? And who are these inventors that received the most patents in the world?

It has to be the same Americans who ranked bottom on the international tests. Those 12th graders with shameful bad math scores in the 1960s have been the primary work force in the US for the past 40 years. The equally poor performers on international tests in the 70s and 80s have been working for the past 30 years now. And even those poor performers on the 1995 TIMSS have entered the workforce. Apparently they have not driven the US into oblivion and ruined the country’s innovation record.

Is it true that Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of public education in a generation?

Again, it depends. It depends on how one defines “meaningful.” If defined as the scale of impact without questioning whether the impact is beneficial or not, it may be true but considering the actual consequences, Race to the Top is neither meaningful nor flexible. It does not focus on “what’s best for our kids” nor spark “creativity and imagination of our people.”

I wonder if Obama knows what Race to the Top actually does because it is just the opposite of what he asks for. He says:

What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -– the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny…It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like 'What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?' ”


“Our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world” -- perhaps this explains why American students scored poorly on tests but have been able to build a strong economy with innovations.

But Race to the Top is about killing ideas and forcing students to memorize equations by imposing common standards and testing in only two subjects on students all over the nation; by forcing schools and teachers to teach to the tests; and by forcing states to narrow educational experiences for all students to a prescribed narrowed defined curriculum.

Race to the Top is precisely what he said it is not: “We know what’s possible from our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities.”

Rather, it is nothing but a top-down mandate. Race to the Top applications required states and schools to be innovative in meeting the top-down mandates: adopting common standards and assessment, linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student test scores, offering more math and science learning, and allowing more charter schools.

In the first round of competition, Massachusetts was penalized for not wanting to rush to adopt the Common Core Standards. Pennsylvania was penalized for proposing innovative practices in early childhood education (Source: Let’s Do the Numbers: Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” Program Offers Only a Muddled Path to the Finish Lin By William Peterson and Richard Rothstein)

Race to the Top is anything but... “the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities” States that were desperate for cash had to use all means to coerce teachers, principals, and school boards to sign on to the application because participation of local schools was a heavily weighted criterion. And if teachers and school leaders did not agree, they risked being accused of not supporting children’s education.

And with regard to common standards, while it is true that they were not developed by Washington, Washington definitely helped with billions of dollars to make them adopted nationwide.

Is it true that “America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree?”

It depends for a number of reasons. First, different countries have different definitions of a college degree. Second, not all college degrees are of equal quality. Third, the changes in rank do not necessarily indicate America’s decline. It could simply be that other countries have caught up.

President Obama may be drawing the figures from a report published by the College Board recently. The report cites OCED data and suggests that “the educational capacity of our country continues to decline.” But the data actually do not support the statement.

According to the report, in 2007, America ranked sixth in postsecondary attainment in the world among 25-64-Year-Olds. It ranked fourth among those ages 55 to 64. But for the 25-34 age group, America ranked 12th. Simply looked at the rankings, America is indeed in decline.

But the percentages of postsecondary degree holders shows a different picture.

For the age group of 25 to 64, 40.3% of Americans held a college degree. The two countries that were immediately ahead of America, Japan and New Zealand, had a lead of less than 1% at 41%. The other three leading countries were Russia (54%), Canada (48.3%), and Israel (43.6%).

For the young age group (25-34 year olds), America had 40.4% and five out of the 11 countries led by about 2%. The countries with over 10% lead were Canada (55.8%), Korea (55.5%), Russia (55.5%), and Japan (53.7%). For those ages 55 to 64, America ranked fourth, but the percentage was 38.5%. The countries ahead of America were Russia (44.5%), Israel (43.5%), and Canada (38.9). Based on this data we can draw two conclusions. First, the United States was never No. 1. Second, the percentage of college degree holders in America has actually increased.

How many more math and science graduates does the United States need?

President Obama wanted “to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.” This is driven by the belief that America does not prepare enough talents in these areas. But according to a comprehensive study based on analysis of major longitudinal datasets found “U.S. colleges and universities are graduating as many scientists and engineers as ever before.” The study was conducted by a group of researchers at Georgetown University, Rutgers University, and the Urban Institute. “Our findings indicate that STEM retention along the pipeline shows strong and even increasing rates of retention from the 1970s to the late 1990s,” says the report. However, not all STEM graduates enter the STEM field. They are attracted to other areas.

“Over the past decade, U.S. colleges and universities graduated roughly three times more scientists and engineers than were employed in the growing science and engineering workforce,” one of the study’s co-author Lindsay Lowell was quoted in the study’s press release, “At the same time, more of the very best students are attracted to non-science occupations, such as finance. Even so, there is no evidence of a long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs.”

What does America really need?

President Obama actually got the destination right when he said “the first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.” But he chose the wrong path.

To encourage American innovation starts with innovative and creative people. But a one-size-fits-all education approach, standardized and narrow curricula, tests-driven teaching and learning, and fear-driven and demoralizing accountability measures are perhaps the most effective way to kill innovation and stifle creativity.

What America really needs is to capitalize on its traditional strengths—a broad definition of education, an education that respects individuality, tolerates deviation, celebrates diversity. America also needs to restore faith in its public education, respects teacher autonomy, and trusts local school leaders elected or selected by the people.

In addition, America needs to teach its children that globalization has tied all nations to a complex, interconnected, and interdependent chain of economic, political, and cultural interests. To succeed in the globalized world, our children need to develop a global perspective and the capacity to interact and work with different nations and cultures, the ability to market America innovations globally, and the ability to lead globalization in positive directions. That includes foreign languages and global studies.

Even the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), a direct result of Sputnik and a product during the Cold War, was broader in terms of areas of studies than conceived in Race to the Top and the blueprint for reauthorization of ESA. It included funding for math, science, foreign languages, geography, technical education, etc. Moreover, it did not impose federal mandates on local schools or states.

Heading north for south: A Chinese story for the president

A Chinese story best illustrates the danger of choosing the wrong path for the correct destination. This story was recorded in Zhan Guo Ce or the Records of the Warring States, a collection of essays about events and tales that took place during China’s Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Here is my recount of the story.

The king of the state of Wei intends to attack its neighboring state of Zhao. Upon hearing the news, Ji Liang, counselor to the king rushes to see him. “Your Majesty, on my way here, I met a man on a chariot pointed to the north,” Ji Liang tells the King, “and he told me that he was going to visit Chu.”

“But Chu is in the south, why are you headed north?” I asked.

“Oh, no worry, my horses are very strong,” he told me.

“But you should be headed south,” I told him again.

“Not to worry, I have plenty of money,” he was not concerned.

“But still you are headed the wrong direction,” I pointed out yet again.

“I have hired a very skillful driver,” was this man’s reply.

“I worry, your majesty, that the better equipped this man was,” Ji Liang says to the King, “the farther away he would be from his destination.”

“You want to be a great king and win respect from all people,” Ji Liang concludes, “You can certainly rely on our strong nation and excellent army to invade Zhao and expand our territory. But I am afraid the more you use force, the farther away you will be from your wishes.”

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, International competitiveness, Race to the Top, School turnarounds/reform, Yong Zhao  | Tags:  china and india and education, china education, chinese schools, education, education policy, education reform, indian schools, international competitiveness, obama speech, president obama, president obama school reform, public schools, race to the top, school reform, schools, state of the union, u.s. education  
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Comments

Our problem stems from trying to keep up with the Jones', ignoring the fact the Jones' are going bankrupt. We can continue to follow the world in numbers or, instead develop a nation of improvement.

Our people are so far advanced of other nations in many ways, yet we try to always be first in every category. The idea that education will fill the void of jobs is akin to buying paint before the walls are in place.

Tyco Industries just moved a large portion of their workforce to Mexico. Should we think that Mexico is so much farther advanced than the U.S.? Is that why we have such a problem with illegals? They come here to escape the overload of education?

Tyco moved to Mexico because of employment cost. If the President thinks all those employees would be better served with a college degree and another vocation, he should realize this is the opportunity to move to Mexico.

He just doesn't get it, and those escapees from an island clown college serve him no better.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 1, 2011 7:38 AM | Report abuse

Excellent analysis by Yong Zhao. Thanks.

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 1, 2011 7:54 AM | Report abuse

A thorough, incisive analysis that includes some excellent historical information. I especially appreciate the information on America's historical performance on international math tests, which really puts a broader context on the myopic venting that happened over PISA earlier this year.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | February 1, 2011 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Obviously, all these facts are too much to confront in a State of the Union address. Thanks for the analysis. Here's how I'd sum up the conundrum:

The country needs problem solvers so we need to teach "How to Solve Problems." Someone dreams up the rules for problem solving, which become the curriculum. Lots of books are written on various ways to teach these rules for solving problems. Educators get caught up in a contest about who has the best teaching strategies for these rules on how to teach problem solving.

The solution should be obvious from the git-go: If we need to create problem solvers, give students problems to solve.

It's as simple as heading south.

Posted by: vickicobb | February 1, 2011 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Obviously, all these facts are too much to confront in a State of the Union address. Thanks for the analysis. Here's how I'd sum up the conundrum:

The country needs problem solvers so we need to teach "How to Solve Problems." Someone dreams up the rules for problem solving, which become the curriculum. Lots of books are written on various ways to teach these rules for solving problems. Educators get caught up in a contest about who has the best teaching strategies for these rules on how to teach problem solving.

The solution should be obvious from the git-go: If we need to create problem solvers, give students problems to solve.

It's as simple as heading south.

Posted by: vickicobb | February 1, 2011 9:27 AM | Report abuse

There has been an organized attack to the charter schools that are being managed by Concept Schools located in Chicago. Concept Schools, for almost ten years, have been serving for the people of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri in providing a decent education to the American kids. A group of people, on the other hand, began attacking to these schools by making up a fiction narrative that Concept managed schools, e.g. Horizon Science Academy, Noble Academy, Math and Science Academies, are linked to Fetfullah Gulen, a Turkish schoolar who lives in Pensylvennia, and the Gulen Movement named after him. Gulen is known in his home country Turkey as an advocate of dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions and supporter of education for all kids. Although, there is no organic link between the Concept namaged charter schools and Gulen, the opponents of Gulen and the Gulen Movement, among them some ex teachers of Concept Schools, are labelling these charter schools as Gulen charter schools. In this case, some parents of Concept managed Horizon Science Academies opened a blog -horizonparents.blogspot.com- to answer false accusations and provide accurate information about the facts that are brought into the discussion.
horizonparents.blogspot.com

Posted by: leslieprada | February 1, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

There has been an organized attack to the charter schools that are being managed by Concept Schools located in Chicago. Concept Schools, for almost ten years, have been serving for the people of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri in providing a decent education to the American kids. A group of people, on the other hand, began attacking to these schools by making up a fiction narrative that Concept managed schools, e.g. Horizon Science Academy, Noble Academy, Math and Science Academies, are linked to Fetfullah Gulen, a Turkish schoolar who lives in Pensylvennia, and the Gulen Movement named after him. Gulen is known in his home country Turkey as an advocate of dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions and supporter of education for all kids. Although, there is no organic link between the Concept namaged charter schools and Gulen, the opponents of Gulen and the Gulen Movement, among them some ex teachers of Concept Schools, are labelling these charter schools as Gulen charter schools. In this case, some parents of Concept managed Horizon Science Academies opened a blog -horizonparents.blogspot.com- to answer false accusations and provide accurate information about the facts that are brought into the discussion.
horizonparents.blogspot.com

Posted by: leslieprada | February 1, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

There has been an organized attack to the charter schools that are being managed by Concept Schools located in Chicago. Concept Schools, for almost ten years, have been serving for the people of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri in providing a decent education to the American kids. A group of people, on the other hand, began attacking to these schools by making up a fiction narrative that Concept managed schools, e.g. Horizon Science Academy, Noble Academy, Math and Science Academies, are linked to Fetfullah Gulen, a Turkish schoolar who lives in Pensylvennia, and the Gulen Movement named after him. Gulen is known in his home country Turkey as an advocate of dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions and supporter of education for all kids. Although, there is no organic link between the Concept namaged charter schools and Gulen, the opponents of Gulen and the Gulen Movement, among them some ex teachers of Concept Schools, are labelling these charter schools as Gulen charter schools. In this case, some parents of Concept managed Horizon Science Academies opened a blog -horizonparents.blogspot.com- to answer false accusations and provide accurate information about the facts that are brought into the discussion.
horizonparents.blogspot.com

Posted by: leslieprada | February 1, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

There has been an organized attack to the charter schools that are being managed by Concept Schools located in Chicago. Concept Schools, for almost ten years, have been serving for the people of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri in providing a decent education to the American kids. A group of people, on the other hand, began attacking to these schools by making up a fiction narrative that Concept managed schools, e.g. Horizon Science Academy, Noble Academy, Math and Science Academies, are linked to Fetfullah Gulen, a Turkish schoolar who lives in Pensylvennia, and the Gulen Movement named after him. Gulen is known in his home country Turkey as an advocate of dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions and supporter of education for all kids. Although, there is no organic link between the Concept namaged charter schools and Gulen, the opponents of Gulen and the Gulen Movement, among them some ex teachers of Concept Schools, are labelling these charter schools as Gulen charter schools. In this case, some parents of Concept managed Horizon Science Academies opened a blog -horizonparents.blogspot.com- to answer false accusations and provide accurate information about the facts that are brought into the discussion.
horizonparents.blogspot.com

Posted by: leslieprada | February 1, 2011 1:24 PM | Report abuse

There has been an organized attack to the charter schools that are being managed by Concept Schools located in Chicago. Concept Schools, for almost ten years, have been serving for the people of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri in providing a decent education to the American kids. A group of people, on the other hand, began attacking to these schools by making up a fiction narrative that Concept managed schools, e.g. Horizon Science Academy, Noble Academy, Math and Science Academies, are linked to Fetfullah Gulen, a Turkish schoolar who lives in Pensylvennia, and the Gulen Movement named after him. Gulen is known in his home country Turkey as an advocate of dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions and supporter of education for all kids. Although, there is no organic link between the Concept namaged charter schools and Gulen, the opponents of Gulen and the Gulen Movement, among them some ex teachers of Concept Schools, are labelling these charter schools as Gulen charter schools. In this case, some parents of Concept managed Horizon Science Academies opened a blog -horizonparents.blogspot.com- to answer false accusations and provide accurate information about the facts that are brought into the discussion.
horizonparents.blogspot.com

Posted by: leslieprada | February 1, 2011 1:25 PM | Report abuse

"To encourage American innovation starts with innovative and creative people. But a one-size-fits-all education approach, standardized and narrow curricula, tests-driven teaching and learning, and fear-driven and demoralizing accountability measures are perhaps the most effective way to kill innovation and stifle creativity."
_____________________

Thank you ,Yong Zhao, for a concise, clearly worded article on many of the disheartening aspects of the current U.S. path to improving our education system.

I particularly like your historical points, and think they point out along the way, how little interest the U.S. has in history - perhaps this is because we are, after all, a pretty young society compared to other countries in the world.

Especially enjoyed the story from "B.C."! Some truths remain timeless.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 1, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the interesting article. I too think Americans need to teach students how to think globally and that does include foreign languages. I love math, but probably never scored high on an international math test back in the 1970's. Back then, it was pretty unusual to do any kind of test prep, at least in my lower middle class area.
I do agree with President Obama about turning off the TV. I think he means kids and parents could spend their time doing something more worthwhile.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | February 1, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Okay, then let's do nothing about our schools. Let's continue to fall downward. This has got to be one of the weakest rebuttals ever written. The opening about TV is ridiculous. If the author really thinks that the President was referring to the 'good TV shows', he should stop his analysis right there. We all know the studies about children who have TVs in their bedrooms, poor school performance, and increased obesity. These children are spending hours watching mindless shows and playing video games. Come on, if you are going to tell us why we should be accepting of the status quo, then you have to have more reasoned arguments. Anyone who thinks that Chinese students don't spend time learning/studying outside of class hours is clueless. I could go on and on with the endless flaws in this critique.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | February 1, 2011 3:38 PM | Report abuse

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