December 18, 2013
Is American Culture to Blame for Failing Schools?By DAVID FIRESTONE
“Americans do not support an egalitarian society.”
That was the response of one reader, Jay David of New Mexico, to the final editorial in our series on science and math education, and in many ways it summed up the bitterness that many others expressed when the American school system was compared to those of other countries.
The editorial looked at some of the reasons students in Finland, Canada and Shanghai do much better in science and math than American students, and concluded that those places care more about preparing teachers and elevating the cultural position of education, while ensuring that more resources go to the neediest schools. In this country, teachers are poorly paid, poorly prepared and generally disdained, while the richest schools and students get by far the most money. Scores of readers blamed that disparity on this country’s more libertarian culture, and on an outlook toward learning that if not overtly anti-intellectual is at least non-intellectual.
“Canadians’ acceptance and indeed pride in their more egalitarian society contrast with Americans’ acceptance of having an underclass,” wrote Blair P., of Palm Desert, Calif. “It’s an Ayn Rand philosophy.”
Several of the biggest Canadian provinces distribute school funds far more equitably than American states, which tend to let school districts fend for themselves based on the wealth of their property-tax base (or lack of it). Equity is a “laughable” idea in a country that lets low-income cancer victims die, wrote Jonathan Broder of New York, and Republicans “would never in a million years allow this type of socialist funds distribution system.”
Allan Dobbins, of Birmingham, Ala., said that he attended a small public high school in a poor working-class Canadian town in the 1970s where there were no frills but solid math, science, and language courses. The school produced a number of Ph.D.’s and physicians. “I believe the situation is quite different in the U.S. and in particular here in the South,” he wrote, “where the broad distribution of funding and quality means some schools have unqualified math and science teachers, or no physics courses at all.”
As Paul Karrer, of Monterey, Calif., put it: “Canada has the gentle hand of government guiding it. The citizens accept and want government. They have a general view of ‘we.’ Not so in the USA.”
The Finnish tradition of strong preparation and respect for teachers was similarly admired by many commenters, who nonetheless remain convinced it cannot be duplicated here.
“Show me a profession that has been vilified more than teaching in the US,” wrote Peter S. of Portland, Ore. “Real-estate agents and used-car dealers have more status and make more money.” He added: “Our best minds in the US go into hedge funds and high finance, where they figure out how de-fund education. No wonder our schools are places no one wants to be.”
David Meyerholz of Virginia Beach, who has taught in a public high school for 33 years, blamed a culture that doesn’t encourage students to strive for knowledge. “We have never been a nation of highly educated people,” he said. “Just because the modern world dictates that we now have to be, doesn’t mean it will happen unless we swim upstream against a current of dumb popular culture.”
Caring about teaching is expensive, but much more than money is involved. Too many lawmakers regard teachers as “a drag on public finances,” as Ole Holsti of Salt Lake City put it, or resent that many are unionized, or disagree even with the idea of a liberal education. The pessimistic tone of many of the comments suggested that few believe the situation is likely to change anytime soon.
“Our backwards system of ‘local’ control and insistence on short-term thinking like keeping costs down will work against this for some time in actual hiring practices,” wrote Tina B. of St. Petersburg, Fla. “It will take at least another generation to make a difference. But it would be worth it.”