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The Decline of American Education

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China Power

The Decline of American Education

The example of former Washington Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee says much about education in the US.

For the past year now, I’ve pretty relentlessly criticized China’s education system. Doing so is easy and, I admit a little fun sometimes. Unfortunately, recently, I’ve been reading about an Asian-American woman who has made me think that perhaps China and the United States aren’t as different as I had naively hoped. Amy Chua may get her own movie and talk show one day, but it’s really Michelle Rhee who’s become the face of the future of US education.

A recent USA Today investigation revealed what appears to be significant cheating on standardized tests in Washington schools while Michelle Rhee was overseeing them as chancellor. Responding in the Huffington Post, Michelle Rhee denied cheating, and denied a cover-up. Rhee also accused USA Today of attacking teachers:

‘What some have concluded from this situation — that we can't hold educators accountable for kids' academic progress because to do so might encourage cheating — is insulting to teachers and principals. Educators are used to being under tremendous pressure. That pressure doesn't come from test taking. It comes from being responsible for young lives every single day. To imply that a large number of teachers would compromise their integrity severely underestimates and demeans the dedicated people who work so hard for kids.’

As probably the United States’ most famous education reformer, Michelle Rhee advocates using standardized tests to measure students’ learning, using incentives to boost teachers’ performance, and streamlining bureaucracy. 

That all sounds good, but to see what these ‘reforms’ mean in practice watch the HBO series ‘The Wire,’ which explores urban decay in Baltimore, and is a parable of American decline in general. The show features local drug dealers and international mafia bosses, but it seems the show’s real villains are the self-serving bureaucrats in the police department and city hall who tinker with statistics to boost their political careers. The show’s heroes, a maverick group of police officers, know that statistics are the worst lies of all, and in refusing to play the game they’re sidelined, while those who do play are handsomely rewarded and promoted. 

The USA Today investigation has forced the Washington D.C. school system to conduct its own cheating investigation. I have enough experience working in China’s education system of standardized tests and incentivized teaching to know that judging from the information available, cheating may well have been widespread in Washington. And I have enough experience to know that even if the investigation were to reach this conclusion, that would still not necessarily prevent Michelle Rhee from one day becoming America’s education czar and from implementing her ‘reforms’ at a national level.  

Everyone can agree that US schools could be better, and there are long-term solutions that with political will and financial commitment can improve them. In terms of teachers, Americans need to learn from Finland, which invests heavily in properly training and compensating teachers. The United States needs to restore funding to many schools’ emaciated arts, music, and outdoor recreation programmes so that learning can be fun and experiential. The country also needs to acknowledge how video games, fast food, and the Internet are negatively impacting the mental, physical, and social development of children – and tackle head on how these powerful industries target children as consumers. Parents, for their part, need to impose high moral standards on their children, while empowering them with more choice and freedom in their lives. American culture needs to shift from one that watches ‘Jersey Shore’ to one that, well, doesn’t. 

But the problem with long-term solutions that require political will and financial commitment is that they’re long-term solutions that require political will and financial commitment. Voters never want to pick up the tab, don’t want to be lectured on how to raise their children, and certainly don’t want to accept responsibility for their children’s failure. And politicians don’t want to do anything, but they especially don’t want to think beyond the next election cycle.

So the only viable option is Michelle Rhee, the personification of the quick political fix in American education.  

Americans like to think they care first and foremost about their children, but in practice they too often show that they only care about themselves. In this regard, they’re no different from Chinese, and that’s what I find similar about both the American and Chinese education systems: the self-interested and self-serving hypocrisy that completely ignores the interests of children. 

Why don’t American children want to learn? It’s because they hate hypocrisy more than algebra and alfalfa sprouts combined. When all young people see is the hypocrisy of adults – how school budgets are always the first to be cut in a financial crunch, how they have to cram for meaningless tests so their teachers can get a Christmas bonus and politicians can win elections, how adults discuss education reform without asking for their input – their natural and correct instinct is to tune out.

Children are smart enough to know that you can’t fix the schools if it’s really the society that’s broken. And the assured ascent of Michelle Rhee – whose career appears focused on pandering to politicians and tinkering with statistics ­– as their saviour will further convince American children that society is truly, irrevocably broken.