National Rankings Show American Schools Lower: It's Not Because Of Bad Teachers

Regularly countries are ranked on the basis of a number of metrics supposed to reflect the quality of their schools systems and each year, the U.S.A. comes in somewhere in the middle of the pack. The 2012 research places the U.S.A at seventeenth, out ranked by much small countries with much more limited resources: Singapore, Japan, South Korea rank ahead.

When these rankings come out, first there's discussion that they aren't all that "accurate", and that if one chose different metrics, the U.S.A. would fare better. Then come discussions of how to "fix" the problem. For example, there's a spirited discussion on teacher pay for performance on Linkedin where proponents of merit pay for teachers suggest that could help improve the quality of American education. There's also various rounds of teacher bashing where people from outside the system, and with limited understanding of the challenges teachers face, tee off on teachers.

Why Does The U.S.A. Fall Behind In Education?

Studies suggest that national culture differences account for why some countries rank more highly on education than other countries. That's a hard thing to change. How DO you get an entire culture, for example, to stare valuing education?

The studies suggest the answer lies, not with teacher pay, not with the quality of teachers (although that's certainly part of it), but with a much broader, and problematic issue. National culture (the beliefs, values of the country).

The countries that fare better than the USA on these metrics simply have cultures that value education more highly. They also tend to have cultures that tend to be less individualistic  and value the welfare of the "group" whether it be family, neighborhood, organization, and much less on individual accomplishment, and "standing out".

In countries that fare better, teachers are more respected and held in higher esteem.

Why Does National Culture Make A Difference?

It's not really that those countries that have cultural beliefs that support education spend more money. In fact, The U.S.A on a per capita basis, spends way more than any other country. For example, per capita spending in Japan is about half of that in the U.S.A. It's about fifty percent more than for countries like Finland (rated tops in school system outcomes), or Canada, the most obvious comparison point.

So, here are several point form explanations why culture on a national basis is so important.

  1. Children in countries where education is more highly valued come to school with different attitudes, and even different skills. Their parents teach them the importance of schooling, and help them be prepared for school, and success in school is valued. That makes the job for teachers much easier, since they can focus on academics rather than on keeping order, chasing down kids and truants, and so on.
  2. Schools also can focus on academics, rather than on the demands and expectations that seem to grow higher each year. Over the last decades American schools have been asked to teach kids many things that used to fall into the domain of parents. When you continue to add responsibilities for teaching sex education, drug abuse prevention, anti-bullying, communication skills and a raft of others, there is simply less time for academics. Americans expect their schools to do much more, and to solve problems that perhaps, in the past, parents would address at home. In other words, Americans view the function and purposes of schooling differently. Add to these increased demands, the obligation of American schools to address serious concerns about violence and school safety in a society where guns and weapons are so available, and you have valuable time and energy pulled out of the teaching process that other countries do not lose.
  3. American culture is "suspicious" of higher education. There's an anti-intellectualism in the U.S. that considers professors, for example, to be "not in the real world", and there's still the idea that you don't want your kids to be "eggheads". The culture often places more emphasis on little Johnny playing football than on little Johnny understand and valuing learning history, or geography, or calculus.
  4. Over the last decades, the view of education's function has changed. Learning for learning's sake is less prominent now. The society in general looks at learning and schooling as something one does so one can make money, and have a successful career, rather than a component of a democratic society, or an important part of becoming a well rounded, knowledgable person.

There are other factors of course. American is a culturally diverse country, not just with respect to country of origin, but also in terms of economics. There are schools in poor areas, and those in large areas, and not only does that mean huge differences in tax bases, and thus, money available for school budgets, but it means also that schools in poor areas are dealing with many other social issues and challenges that don't occur in more prosperous areas. Countries with more homogenous demographics don't have to grapple with that same diversity.

The Role Of Teachers

Certainly the quality of teachers counts. You'd expect that if the USA can produce better teachers, then the country would "catch up". That's not likely to happen. That's why ideas like pay for performance don't work, or won't work to improve American education. Better teaching staffs may perform slightly better. More motivated teachers may perform slightly better, although it's a stretch to claim that the reason American schools are behind is because teachers don't care.

The reality is you can take all of the best teachers in the world, and put upon them all the demands placed on American teachers that result from the American culture, and you counteract any benefits you might get from a more motivated and skilled teaching force.

The Scary Part: You Can't Get To "Better" From Here

As is the case with other large issues, like violence and crime, health care, and others that societies face, when the issue lies with national culture, beliefs and values, there is only limited room for improvement, by changing this little thing, or that. In the past, we've seen ideas like school choice and vouchers, charter schools, pay for teacher performance,and all kinds of "grand" schemes, and none of them seem to have borne significant fruit. That's because they nibble around the edges, and don't address the ultimate issues of culture.

There is no solution, short of significant shifts in American values and beliefs. In a sense countries get the school systems they really really want, and are consistent with their ideas about the functions, value, and purpose of education.

As is the case with guns in the USA, the problem lies not in the details, ultimately, but the general beliefs about rights, government and a host of other factors.

There is a bottom line here. It's not that we shouldn't try to improve education. However, maybe we should be leery of the newest trend, program or idea that diverts resources away from areas that directly affect the experience of being in school. Maybe we should start examining whether we are asking too much of schools.

Maybe we as members of society, and parents should look in the mirror before we complain about how our schools are "failing" our children.