What’s wrong with American education?
An international student's reflection.
Lack of Standardization
The lack of standard pedagogy in America has always appalled me. Before studying in an elite American high school, I hailed from a public middle school in China. Schooling in China was very different.
Chinese schools are factories—when I entered 7th grade, I was fed into an assembly line along with my peers. Our hands were cuffed. Our bodies were tattooed with math equations and then dressed in Confucian values. We were castrated. And our brains were removed from our skulls to be washed at a big red tank.
The point being, Chinese education is systemic and methodological. Its workers are well-trained and perform their tasks with upmost objectivity. Their hands dance in sync with each other, following the music notes prescribed to them with upmost accuracy. A stern manager surveils the working place every day. He assesses the quality of each product leaving the assembly line and punishes or rewards his workers accordingly… Chinese schools are factories with great quality control.
Needless to say, when I came to America, I was quite surprised to find disarray in my American school—each American teacher seems to invent her own pedagogy. By itself, this is not an issue. If different teachers invent different pedagogies, then, in the spirit of the marketplace of ideas, we have a marketplace of pedagogies.
If a true marketplace of pedagogies is achieved, different pedagogies are allowed to compete with each other. The successful pedagogy is promoted while the failing one recedes from popularity. Thanks to competition, successful pedagogies would soon enough dominate American schools.
Unfortunately, America does not have a true marketplace of pedagogies. What it has is a landfill of pedagogies—we have different pedagogies but no reliable system to evaluate them against one another. So good teachers teach under the same roof as bad teachers. They live the same wage as bad teachers. And when they retire, their successful pedagogy dies with them, leaving no mark in the public “marketplace” of pedagogies.
Since my school (and presumably most other schools) doesn’t reliably evaluate teachers’ teaching performances, it abounds with bad pedagogy and whatever adjective/noun that stands opposed professionalism. That is not to say most teachers are bad. Most teachers are fine, if not good. But it’s surprisingly easy to find a teacher who treats teaching as his side hustle.
He’s the guy who whisks into class 0.1 second before class begins. He’s the guy who whips out his laptop, connects to the projector, pulls up a fancy google slide he definitely made himself, and then reads off his presentation notes without checking if his class has fallen asleep. He’s the guy who gives everyone an A (or a 6, in the case of my school) because he’s too busy to check our homework or grade our tests or essays. His is Jim.
And guess what? Students love Jim, because students love getting As or 6s. They also love getting the free time during his class to do their homework or work on their projects or scroll through twitter feeds or… Students are not learning. But who cares about learning? It’s 2023. So, they give Jim good feedback, and Jim stays. Sometimes, Jim is even praised. Good for Jim.
The system rewards people like Jim. Hence, gradually, there are more Jims at my school—the school hires more Jims and other teachers also start taking lessons from Jim. The symptom of this disease is grade inflation. Its ailment is that students are not learning. And its cure is a robust teacher evaluation system.
Cult of Flattery
Money is the principle incentive driving capitalistic exchanges. And college admission is the principle incentive driving high school student activities. So, to identify issues in our education system, look no further than what admission officers are looking at in applications.
Nowadays, SAT scores are out, and GPA and teacher’s recommendations are in. Both elements reflect a teacher’s subjective impression of a student. Subjectivity is a double-edged sword. It adds a touch of humanity to an application. Yet the touch of humanity it adds is phony.
The quality of a student’s rec letter and GPA are highly dependent on how well he flatters his teachers. But flattery is not necessarily a bad thing either. It pushes a student to engage in class, to offer a hand of kindness to her struggling peers, especially when under the gaze of her teacher.
But however flattery is performed, it inevitably connotes a flimsy layer of deceptiveness. I find it distasteful. And so do others, I’m sure. But flattery continues, because the system of incentives rewards it.
Flattery also creates a systemic favoritism for certain personality types—extroverted personality types that can tolerate phoniness. This favoritism is not completely detestable either. Sometimes, you do need to be extroverted and tolerate a bit of phoniness to succeed in our capitalist world. But whatever. Since I lie on the opposite side of the personality spectrum, f*ck personality favoritism.
Another more serious issue the cult of flattery spawns is that flattery discourages dissent. If you want to flatter someone, you had better not openly disagree with them.
When I first set foot on the “land of the free” I was surprised to find myself more reluctant to dissent in classroom than when I was back in Communist China. In China, grading is anonymous. So, some tiny rifts with my teacher bear no weighting on my grades. Hence, dissents bring no consequences, as long as they don’t pluck the nerve of a party secretary.
The largest reason American schools are horrible places for academic pursuits is the culture. American students simply don’t value education or want to be educated. But that’s an incurable reality. So, we’d better suck it up and improve the curable faults first.