Guest view: Why do U.S. students lag?

December 24, 2013 

It used to be that the United States was credited with doing the best job of any country in the world of educating its people. But not now. American public schools have been denigrated. Our teaching corps has been decimated and reduced unmercifully.

It appears that we give lip service to education while spending more time, money and talent on other venues. It just might be that too many Americans prefer to be entertained rather than educated when it comes to setting priorities. It appears that educators rank low in prestige and money while entertainers, athletes, business people and others reap the harvest of respect and money.

Reading and listening to the media demonstrate this phenomenon. We get many of our ideas and values from the print and electronic media. In fact, it is the print media that published the embarrassing news that U.S. students again lag behind their peers in Asian and European countries.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American adults are also lagging behind other countries in literacy and numeracy, but young adult Americans rank the lowest among their peers in all countries that participated in the OECD survey.

I sometimes think that there may be an anti- intellectual climate in the U.S. There is a paucity of respect and recognition for teachers and others in the field of education. Even some newspapers often do not recognize the accomplishments of teachers, refusing to recognize higher degrees in print because of their stylebook. Many print and electronic media devote much more space to entertainment and sports than to education. Also in terms of print media, educational journals are not as popular as other magazines.

Some educators may be at least partially blameworthy for the poor state of education affairs in the U.S. Some of us have even relaxed the professional dress code, are ill- prepared and present behaviors ill-suited for professional educators yet are protected by unions and tenure rights. Is there any wonder then that American students lag behind their world peers?

During my work and presentations in such places as China, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, North Africa and The Republic of South Africa, it was my observation that teachers are respected on par with other professionals and in many cases are paid accordingly. Students' work week and work day are longer.

Some of these countries have centralized education systems and common core curricula. At least one (China) appears to cleave more to educating their best and brightest children of the elite. An example of this practice is their Children's Palaces.

One of the highest honors of my career as an educator was when my University of Johannesburg colleagues and I met President Nelson Mandela when he visited with us at the University of Johannesburg on July 11, 1997.

Fellow Americans, we must work at closing the racial achievement gap and the world student gap by remediating the ills that hinder educational progress.

Katie H. Wright, of East St. Louis, is adjunct professor emeritus at Harris-Stowe State College.

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