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Education in the U.S.: The Good (Part I)

How does American education fare across the globe?

As the fall semester commences, I feel compelled to write about the state of education in the United States, and reflect upon where we rank internationally. And so, here is my assessment of the good, the bad, and the ugly about the education our kids are receiving today, beginning with the good in this three part blog-series on education:

The Good

In part I, I will focus on the good news: by and large, basic access to education is attainable in this country. Moreover, women and other minorities are not directly or systematically being denied basic rights and access to education the way that they are in other developing nations across the globe (particularly in ones that are high conflict zones). For instance, across the globe, “of the estimated 101 million children not in school, more than half are girls,” and oftentimes their sex alone is given as grounds to deny them this basic right (“Basic education and gender equality,” 2011, para 4). This is thankfully not the case in the United States, and it is this very ideal of opportunity for all that forms the bedrock of the notion of the American Dream.

In terms of international rankings, while U.S. students rank lower than what we would like (17th internationally was the ranking in 2012, more on that in Part II), reading scores among American students are generally respectable, and above average for the developed world (Ripley, 2013). While rates of literacy in the United States doesn’t even crack the top 20 of global rankings, this is a promising finding that suggests that the focus on reading and writing in our schools is translating to improvements on assessments in these subjects that hold up to international standards.

Additionally, the philosophy behind education in America—despite loud critiques by policymakers and concerned citizens—is well rounded and surpasses being based exclusively on test scores or outcomes. Academic curriculum in this country is not only focused on tangible outcomes such as test scores and school performance, but also includes activities such as sports, arts, music, self-discovery, socialization, and helping students cultivate emotional intelligence and discover their identities. Thus, educational institutions are significant agents of socialization for students, and can help them grow not only intellectually, but morally, socially, creatively, athletically, even spiritually, etc. Thus the purpose of an education in this country is not solely to get credentialed and earn a living, but there are other equally compelling values behind the education system that shape academic experiences for American students.

Lastly, although on the surface this may sound like a criticism, there is some redemption behind the fact that despite the potential for academic environments to become competitive in America, they are not competitive to such an extent as to be debilitating for the majority of our students. For instance, the obsession with being ranked first in one’s class is relatively mild here relative to other countries, like say South Korea, which has been ranked second globally on test scores (see Gayathri, 2012). For instance, in her compelling book entitled “The Smartest Kids in the World,” in describing the obsession with rankings in South Korea, Ripley (2013) writes that, “in places with extreme levels of student drive, winning the competition could become the goal in and of itself. Families and kids could lose sight of the purpose of learning and fixate obsessively on rankings and scores” (60).

In extreme cases in South Korea, such a pervasive focus on rankings has led to suicides among students who cannot take the pressure put on them, acts of violence against their parents, who are caught up in a system that compels them to add additional pressure to their kids’ performance, as well as resentment of the system itself by the students. One American student studying abroad in South Korea, for instance, reflected that, “’the student’s I’ve talked to despised the system [driven by competition and rankings]…they absolutely loathe it’” (as quoted by Ripley, 2013, p. 62). Moreover, when education is not as well-rounded as described above, the identity of a student can be tied solely to his or her ranking—leading to anxiety, shame and fear when a student is poorly ranked, and desperation and vigilance to maintain the rank when one is ranked high (although oftentimes in such cutthroat environments, even second best isn’t high enough).

As an educator, I wish that there were more tangible goods to report in this post, but I must confess that in immersing myself in the research, unfortunately the bad and the ugly had perhaps more compelling facts to report. Stay tuned for my upcoming posts, Parts II & III, for details on how our education system is lagging, and what can be done to make improvements. In the meantime, I wish those educators and students who will find themselves returning to the classroom the best of luck, and feel grateful that I will be one of those returning to an institution of higher learning.

Basic education & gender equality (2011). UNICEF. Retrieved on September 1, 2014 from: http://www.unicef.org/education/index_access.html.

Gayathri, A. (2012). U.S. 17th in global education ranking; Finland, South Korea claim top spots. International Business Times. Retrieved on September 1, 2014 from:

http://www.ibtimes.com/us-17th-global-education-ranking-finland-south-korea-claim-top-spots-901538.

Ripley, A. (2013). The smartest kids in the world. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Copyright 2014 Azadeh Aalai

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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