Today, the way the educational system works in the U.S. concerns a large number of people in this country. Only 25% of adults have a great deal of confidence in the people running education, according to the General Social Survey, down from 49% in 1974 (Russel 4). A lot of discussions have been held to find the best ways to improve teaching methods. At the same time, people recognize that a very valuable solution to increase the level of education in the United States is to look at some problems that cause difficulties and hamper the enhancement of the quality of education. The first step is to define these problems.
As in every country, the U.S. wants to develop its national standards in education and wants them to be high. This has always been a government function. Being democratic, the government is trying to fit the qualities of democracy into the way to set these standards. Of course, this is not an easy task since this country has a very diverse population. To please everybody has always been an almost impossible task. Despite this impossibility, national standards have already been set. If a visitor from another nation was dropped into an American public school classroom without knowing the state or the region, he or she would be likely to see the same lesson taught in the same way to children of the same age (Ravitch 9). Everything seems right except the fact that the abilities of children are different. Not everybody is able to study at a college; not everybody wants to continue being educated. It is obvious that every country wants to produce as many educated people as possible. But, at the same time, every country needs workers because, regardless of the fast development of technology, there is still a great necessity for human labor. To satisfy all the necessities of the country, the government should provide different kinds of education. This does not mean that we need to eliminate all of the standards; they could be set in each field of education.
Although standards are set, there is still a very big difference in teaching methods in different schools. Perhaps, the most serious problem starts in high schools: some schools provide a higher level of education than others. Students from most city schools graduate with the confidence in their knowledge; their level of education is high enough to attend a university. On the other hand, students from small towns, suburbs, and villages do not have the opportunity to get that kind of education because schools in small areas of the United States can not provide the same level of education as schools in large cities. The democratic idea of everybody having an equal education is breached.
The high school problem further extends to most of the nation’s colleges and universities. Students that come to colleges do not have the same level of knowledge. This could be proved by the results of the ACT (American College Test). According to the information provided by the ACT, Inc., out of all the students who took the test in 1997 (959,301), almost the same number of students scored 27 (36,566) as those who scored 14 (36,100). To solve this problem the general education program was brought into the college curriculum. It provides every college student with basic knowledge and, at the same time, balances the general level of education. It seems to be a perfect way to solve the problem of inequality in the educational system. This would be acceptable if it did not impede the system itself. A lot of students that have already gotten enough general education are held back because they are required to take the courses they already had. Most of them think that it is a waste of time and money.
The other significant problem is the dropout level in the U.S. colleges. In states with high postsecondary matriculation rates, the college dropout rates can run as high as two thirds?about one half of those who try the baccalaureate college game will fail (Gray 530). This means that around 50% of those who attempt to go to college do not get their degrees, thus wasting their time and money. Personal and family problems are the most general reasons for students to drop out. Yet, there are a lot of students who once were convinced by their parents and teachers to continue education, but now realized that they can live without it and that there are ways to make good money having no college education. These students’ attitudes toward the higher education influence the decline of national standards in education.
For better understanding, it would be appropriate to draw a parallel between the educational systems in Russia and the United States. In Russia, people that do not want to continue their education in college are not required to finish high school. Thus, the last two years in high school provide those students who are willing to go to college with the necessary amount of general education, so that, after graduating from high school, they are well prepared to start working on their college degrees. But there is still one concern:
Russian high school students are overloaded. In the United States, high school students do not have such intense studies and as much homework as students in Russia. They have a lot of free time; that may be one reason American teen-agers experiment with cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and sex at earlier age than Russian teen-agers, and that hampers them to perform well in school. The other reason for poor performance in school could be the recent decrease of adult supervision in both countries. Today, parents, working more than in any other years, rely on their school communities and pay less attention to their children’s studies. It [was] an axiom of ? education that parents are partners in their children’s education (Berkowitz 47), but today it is more often not the situation. These deficiencies show that neither of these countries has a perfect high school education system. A compromise of the two systems might be a better choice. The only way to create this is to cooperate: to share experiences and ideas.
With all its own problems, the U.S. seems to have even more of them when compared to the other countries. It has become rather fashionable, on all sides of the political spectrum, to bemoan the failed American public school system and to envy the education systems in Japan, Germany and other industrialized countries(Aviel 130). Various studies of educational achievements in the United States, some of which were conducted by such prestigious institutions as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have been showing how poor the academic performance of American students is compared to Asian and European ones. The studies have emphasized that most of the U.S. high school students do not pay enough attention to their studies, do not do enough homework, and do not have responsible attitudes toward their education. This continues to be the situation in colleges and most of the time appears to be the main reason of the high percentage of dropouts.
Most people blame the educational system in the U.S. for having wrong teaching methods and a poor educational philosophy. For example, schools in Japan center their methods on teaching students to memorize and recall a huge amount of information. [The] Japanese never-ending drive for achievement, evidenced by their high demand for admission into the elite schools and universities and later into the top bureaucracies and corporations, may be considered obsessive by American standards (Rehder 42). American schools, on the other hand, promote critical thinking, oral communication skills, the ability to work in groups, and, in addition to all of these, take it easy attitude toward education. That may explain why American students do not perform well on standardized tests. Moreover, multiple-choice tests were criticized because they are oriented to low-level basic skills and discourage students to go deeply into the subject. The admission polices in the U.S. schools are not as selective as in most of the schools in Europe and Asia and all types of students are accepted not only to high schools but also to colleges.
Furthermore, American schools are always compared to European schools in their teaching methods. Not surprisingly, they are judged by the academic performances of the students that happened to be less productive when compared to the Europeans. But grades, perhaps, are not the most important things: the kind of knowledge a student receives and a degree of satisfaction are more significant factors that characterize the efficiency of the teaching methods. In this case, the U.S. schools can not be argued to be on a lower level than European schools. As an example, the author of the article A closer examination of American education, David Aviel, tells about his daughters who spent half of a high school year in a private school in Spain and the other half at a public school in San Mateo, California. When sharing their experiences, they were pointing out the differences in the teaching methods, the requirements of the teachers, and the different attitudes the teachers in Spain and California had. Students in the Spanish school were required to keep neat social studies notebooks that were later graded on accuracy and similarity with the notes on the blackboard. On the contrary, the social studies notebooks in the school in San Mateo were graded on their contents that were required to include critical essays and comments on the issues that were discussed in the class. In Spain, the students were taught to memorize a large amount of information and then master the facts that they had learned in the class. In San Mateo High School, teachers were not satisfied with these ways of teaching their students. They were trying to teach them to think and express their thoughts in the form of either writing or oral communication. As a result of going to the California high school, David’s daughters were many times taken for the students from the private school, although they really went to a very public one.
Because of the great emphasis on the weaknesses in the educational system of the U.S., critics tend to ignore its strengths and positive qualities. These teaching methods should not be considered wrong; they are just different. There are a lot of reasons for the U.S. to have the educational system that it has. The first reason, the presence of a diverse population in the U.S., appears to be a great challenge for most of the teachers. [Students] come to school today with different diets, different religions?different individual and group loyalties, different music, different languages (Phi Delta Kappa 619). They make large inputs to the way teaching methods are changing in the U.S. and deserve fair feedback from their teachers. Thus, it becomes a very difficult task to try to provide equal education to unequal students.
The other reasons for keeping the current educational system are: high poverty rates, increasing percentage of divorces, and the large amount of disabled children in the U.S. (2.5 million children are classified as having learning disabilities (Sternberg 23)). All these social changes emotionally influence more than half of all students in the U.S. Thus, there is a great necessity for creating the curriculum that is not highly intensive and pays a lot of attention to the development of individuality. The problem is that this, of course, automatically creates a large number of talented students that are tracked into this type of curriculum. On the other hand, the results of the Advanced Placement (AP) and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) tests showed that most of the top students do not need as much effort from the educational system as poor students do (on the GRE the mean verbal score increased by 16 points, the mean quantitative score – by 36 points, and the mean analytical score – by 30 points (Phi Delta Kappa 623)).
Yet, due to the educational system, the level of academic achievements in the U.S. is not high enough when compared to most of the European and Asian countries. Still, a fair amount of attention should be paid to the positive qualities of American education. First, the U.S. government devotes 3.5 percent of GDP to the public funding of education (Nelson). These expenditures are above average. Second, the school year (180 days) is short when compared to a school year of 240 days in Japan. Nevertheless, the college programs in the U.S. are so intensive, that for the same number of years, American students get the same amount of education while having 60 days less each school year. Furthermore, the U.S. colleges attract the large number of foreign students which proves the high value of American education in the world.
Talking about the weaknesses of the U.S. education, people tend to use the results of standardized tests as an example and support of their point of view. But not many people actually know the real results of entrance college examinations such as the ACT or SAT. According to the results on The 1997 ACT High School Profile Report web page, the national average score on the ACT rose from 20.9 points in 1996 to 21.0 in 1997 (the maximum score is 36 points). One will say that the progress is not really significant, but for such a big nation as the U.S. this change means a noticeable improvement. Moreover, this is not all of the good news about the standardized tests. The results have increased even higher in some of the states and specific schools. For example, Wisconsin students had the highest average score in the nation (22.1 points compared to 21.6 last year), and Christian High School Briarcrest in Memphis, Tennessee, had the class with the average score of 23.0 in 1996 (Online).
Obviously, there was enough proof presented to provide a fair defense to the efficiency of the teaching methods in the U.S. schools. Then the question arises: What is the reason of the poor performance of American students? Perhaps the main factor that directly influences the decline of the students’ performance is the attitude the students themselves have toward their studies and education in general. Interesting facts were revealed during an interview with Maxim Sinitsyn, an instructor of Economics 112 at the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE). He allows his students to retake all the quizzes and tests if they do poorly on them. Out of 120 students (two sections), only three students were really concerned about their grades and came to retake the test after spending more time preparing for it. However, the most interesting fact is that about 10% of the class received failing grades. This tells us that most of the students either do not care about their grades at all or just do not try to improve their results when they are given an opportunity to do so. Here are some other statistical facts that are based on the survey of 250,000 freshmen from 464 institutions: ? 36.0% say that they were frequently ‘bored in the class’? 34.5% say they missed class or an appointment because they overslept ? only 33.9% in 1997 spent six or more hours a week studying or doing homework ? (McEachern 1). This survey has been conducted every year, and, every year, the results are getting worse.
Of course, to find a solution to the problem that centers on the apathetic attitude of the students toward education is almost an impossible task because it is impractical to make the students study better. Yet, a good idea could be to increase the requirements in the nation’s high schools, especially the homework requirements. Home assignments help to review the new material studied in class, increase understanding, correct errors, and give a good opportunity to practice (Berkowitz 46). If all these purposes of homework were accomplished, the performance of the students would greatly improve. Also, the increase in the number of classes that students take during the school year would keep them busier and leave less free time for doing the wrong things.
Students in the U.S. schools are treated more carefully than students in other countries. They are provided with enthusiastic teachers and perfect equipment, with a variety of financial aid programs that are available in most of the schools, and, finally, with a lot of opportunities to succeed in their studies; in most of the schools, especially private ones, each student will get an individual approach. For example, if you need special testing conditions, such as enlarged type or extended time, you [may] provide documentation of your disability to the College Board or American College Testing (Smith 14). It is absurd not to use all these opportunities and to waste time and money trying to get any education just to assure oneself of having a high salary, forgetting that the real purpose of education is getting more knowledge and increasing one’s ability to function more effectively in the society.
The government aims its efforts to raise the overall level of education in the United States, and, by doing this, it hopes to bring the whole country forward in its quest for prosperity. To accomplish this goal should not only be the government’s, but also the whole society’s striving. Since the level of education is one of the most important determinants of the nation’s standard of living, everybody in this country has to assume these responsibilities in order to make any educational reforms proposed by the government successful.
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