Why is the US Lagging Behind the World in Education?

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classroom_1By D. Goldstein

For all our national hand-wringing about standardized testing and teacher tenure, many of us immersed in the American education debate can’t escape the nagging suspicion that something else-something cultural, something nearly intangible-is holding back our school system. In 1962, historian Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed it “anti-intellectualism in American life.”

“A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference,” he wrote, “underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else-the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children.”

It would be comforting to think that since Hofstadter’s time a string of national reform initiatives-A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core-has addressed these issues. And though there has been some progress on the margins, journalist Amanda Ripley is here with a riveting new book,¬†The Smartest Kids in the World, to show us exactly why, compared with many of their peers in Europe and Asia, American students are still performing below the mark. According to the OECD, 20 countries have higher high school graduation rates than the United States. Among developed nations, our children rank 17th in reading and 31st in math. Even Poland, with high child poverty rates similar to our own, boasts stronger student achievement and faster system-wide improvement.

An entire education reform industry has been built off anxiety about numbers like these. And an entire body of literature exists calling these international rankings into question; for example, arguing that the OECD’s tests¬†over-sample the United States’ poorest, least academically proficient students. Ripley steers mostly clear of this stale debate and instead tells the stories of three American teenagers who opt to spend a year studying abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, three countries that do well in the OECD rankings. There the American kids encounter high schools that are deeply, even shockingly, enamored of intellectualism.

In the U.S., most teachers earned about average grades and test scores when they were in high school and college. But in Finland, it is as competitive to become a public school teacher as it is to gain acceptance into an Ivy League university. There are no shortcuts into the classroom-prospective teachers must earn a master’s degree, write a research-driven thesis, and spend a full year in a teaching residency, observing master educators at work and practicing lessons and classroom management.

We should stop throwing tax dollars at school sports programs and at gadgets like interactive white boards and iPads for every child.

While few of us would want to subject our children to South Korea’s insane levels of testing stress, that nation at least shows kids that academic achievement is valued. On the morning of the national college entrance exam, the stock market opens an hour late, to clear the roads for 600,000 nervous students. Younger kids line up outside schools to cheer as their peers enter to take the nine-hour test. The scene, Ripley observes, is “like boxers entering a ring for a fight.”

In the U.S., federal incentives have created huge new business for corporate test makers, with annual standardized testing in reading and math, and a new generation of yearly exams in science, social studies, and even art and music. The quality of these tests varies greatly from district to district and state to state. They have few consequences for students, since they are intended mostly to collect data for evaluating teachers and administrators. In Poland, however, another country intent on creating a more accountable school system, children are tested only three times: at the end of elementary school, middle school, and high school. The tests are created by the national government and are identical for every student who takes them.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. Americans see themselves as world rulers or kings. A king need not work, he has servants. The kings (Americans) are leaving the work to the servants (China, Japan, India etc).

  2. Mr. Goldtein has identified several important factors, such as lack of investment in educational infrastructure, teacher recruitment, preparation, and subsequent
    support, and a glaring lack of commitment to equity in educating students that explain why the United States is lagging behind other countries–Finland, Singapore, and South Korea–to name only a few.

    I’d like to recommend another excellent study, Darling-Hammonds (2010),”The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.” Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University, documents and explains the challenges and possible alternatives and solutions that are necessary in American Education to prepare our students for the 21st century.

  3. It’s plain and simple as apple pie!
    Our kids come from homes where there is so much going on, so much emphasis on ‘gashmiyos’ and mundane things there is simply no appetite for learning. We can get there because our parents will get us there is the prevalent attitude today. Also, the teachers are too busy worrying about their career and reputation for if they say anything that some lawyer – a loser lawyer, may I add – may see as a lawsuit to bring the Rebbi or teacher down that they can’t do their jobs properly! A Rebbi or teacher cannot encourage a child by placing his/ her hand on the child’s shoulder in quest of encouraging the childthe for fear of being labeled a pervert. We’re too busy installing cameras into classrooms because we don’t trust our Rabbeyim and teachers! They’re all losers and that’s why they’ve entered the field, we believe. If a Rebbi or teacher says the slightest thing negative to a child we’re all concerned the child may become at ‘kid-at-risk!’ It has nothing to do with the home or difficulty a child may have that may be the prevalent contributing factor! It’s the Rebbi or teacher’s possible one time indescretionary comment that’s the blame and cause!
    Education is all too important though! Children need that encouragement- it’s akin to the mom’s endearment in the way mothers could and should!
    How could our children do well when they see their parents glued to their iphone, busy texting or the facebooking when they walk the child to and from school? Our generation has made education the back burner in matters of priorities! How could a child focus on Gemorrah or Math when he’s thinking about his new Wi game? If he’s playing a virtual game until bedtime (or beyond) is he.getting a restful night sleep? In Poland, for example, they have none of this! Their lives can focus on education!

  4. #3: Calm yourself. The article talks about secular education in the US.

    Limudei Kodesh in the US is alive and well, especially outside the Ayaros Hakodesh (New York, Monsey, and Lakewood).

    In fact, there are certain aspects of Limudei Kodesh in the US that are superior even to that in Israel. Just ask any true Rosh Yeshivah who is in the know.

  5. You get what you pay for. End of story. We pay professional athletes in the tens of millions of dollars, and we get superb athletes. We pay teachers next to nothing – and let politicians scream that even that is too much – and we get poor education. We let public schools go with no maintenance and no libraries – and we get discouraged kids. And don’t think it’s just THEIR problem. We all live in society together, and if the majority society isn’t healthy and prosperous, neither will we be. (Remember 2008, anybody?)


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