Big Sister

    America is facing new societal challenges and, as usual, the pundits are blaming our schools.

    In the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof argued that the nation’s current outsourcing “crisis” — in which technology, service and knowledge-based jobs are being lost to India and China — is rooted in our “second-rate education system.”

    His Indian friend, Kristof writes, “notes that in his native Bangalore, children learn algebra in elementary school. All in all, he says, the average upper-middle-class child in Bangalore finishes elementary school with a better grounding in math and science than the average kid in the U.S.”

    There’s no sense in denying that the American education system, public or private, is producing students who are outperformed in math and science by students in many other countries. A recent study placed American kids 19th in the world in math performance — “behind Latvia.” Articles about the study quickly point this out, as though we should be horrified at the thought of being beaten by a tiny former Soviet state.

    Yes, the top six performers on this study were all Asian countries. Yes, we’re losing jobs in the tech sector to these same Asian countries, and to immigrants who hail from these countries and come to the United States on H1-B visas. But to blame the latter on the former is to willfully ignore the actual cause of the current rise in outsourcing: bare, naked economics.

    Why pay an American $50,000 a year to process X-rays when you can pay an Indian half that? Why shell out the $40 per hour an American citizen might ask for as a network administrator, when a recently arrived Chinese national will gladly take $25?

    There are college graduates well-versed in math and science all over the United States who have yet to find work in these fields, like the tech-head casualties of the dot-com bust and my roommate who graduated in August with a degree in economics and whose only prospects are data entry and retail. We don’t have a shortage of qualified American workers, we have a glut of foreign-born workers who will work for less.

    Frankly, I’m not convinced this outsourcing crisis is a crisis at all. And whether or not protectionism is the answer (I’m inclined to think not) is an issue for the politicians to sort out. But let’s not lay this perceived social ill at the feet of our schools.

    We should be concerning ourselves with a more philosophical question about education in America: the purpose of schooling, especially public school. It’s not enough anymore to simply say that schools exist to educate our children and prepare them for adulthood, because it’s clear that there are two polarized stances on what it means to do that.

    On the one hand, we have those who see the public schools as great repositories of knowledge, which should fill our children’s heads with information: equations, names, dates, discoveries, literary references — in short, all the things with which one should be familiar if one is to get a job and participate in our democratic society.

    On the other hand, there are some who see schools’ purpose not as filling an empty glass, but rather molding the vessel itself, developing critical, inquisitive minds well-versed in problem solving and creative thinking.

    There should be a happy medium. However, politics, as it is wont to do, has divided the two sides with the sharp edge of legislation and public funding. The push for standards-based reform, such as that evident in President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, wants to make sure children are on the right track in acquiring information. Districts implement high-stakes tests and fact-based teaching, which many educators deplore for taking classroom time away from more esoteric, experience-based learning. Should science textbooks limit experiments to 25 percent of students’ time, instead devoting resources to mastering the facts of chemistry and biology? Or should teachers try to inspire in students a love of the subject, and an understanding that can only come from firsthand interaction with the concepts?

    Obviously, the American public school system is systematically failing to meet either of these goals with any consistency. Even in well-heeled suburban schools, many kids are graduating without knowledge or understanding of basics like the U.S. Constitution. Many come to selective universities like UCSD with a rudimentary understanding of grammar and only the barest notion of how to write coherently. And the number of science-phobic humanities majors, who must have coasted through high school biology by answering everything with “ATP” (which will get you a surprisingly high grade, actually) is shocking.

    I won’t even start on the academic conditions at less fortunate high schools in rural or inner-city settings. To do so would be to expose my most unabashedly leftist reform proposal: to radically restructure the funding of public schools, so property taxes are divvied and distributed at the state level, and all students, regardless of what kind of neighborhood they live in, get the same amount of public money devoted to their education. Such pie-in-the-sky imaginings are hardly germane to the issue of driving educational philosophy.

    It’s probably too much to ask for any sophisticated political discourse to take place during an election year. However, I hope that once the dust has settled and our new president has been chosen, he will open to thorough scrutiny the question of American public education: Is it still relevant, and if so, what should its guiding principles be? It’s a discussion we can’t afford not to have — but one many of us may be ill-prepared to lead.

    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $2505
    $5000
    Contributed
    Our Goal

    Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    More to Discover
    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $2505
    $5000
    Contributed
    Our Goal