American Culture Undermines America

In an article "Whizzing By", the New York Sun reports that a New York University study shows that new immigrants do the best in American schools, but the longer immigrants are in American schools, the worse they do:

These conclusions come from a new study, "Do Immigrants Differ From Migrants?"

"The foreign born are whizzing by the native born at every level," one of the researchers, Amy Ellen Schwartz, said.

The writer lives in Riverdale, a neighborhood in the northwest Bronx.  After noting that his local middle school used to send around 100 students per year to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science whereas only 5 made it this year, the author asks the real question:

Have we so "dumbed down" our curricula that the longer a child is exposed to it, the worse he or she will do? Perhaps that is behind the results of the N.Y.U. study. Could it be that constructivist math, taught exclusively at Riverdale schools for a dozen years now, puts these children at grave disadvantage for their entire lives? This math curriculum was abandoned in California a decade ago and in Texas recently. It is unknown in the countries whose immigrant children are now doing so well academically in New York's schools.

... my advice to parents in the meantime is to look at the achievements of immigrant children and start asking why all children seem to do worse academically the longer they attend our schools. [emphasis added]

Contrast With Finland

It's depressing to contrast this article with "What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?" which appeared on page W1 of the Wall Street Journal of Feb 29, 2008.  The WSJ says:

Finland's teens score extraordinarily high on an international test.  American educators are trying to figure out why.

What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. ... What they see is a relaxed, back-to-basics approach. The school, which is a model campus, has no sports teams, marching bands, or prom. [emphasis added]

The article doesn't point out that by "well-trained teachers," the Finns mean teachers who are well trained in their subject matter.  American teacher trainees waste a great deal of time with certification courses which ensure that all surviving teachers have a high tolerance for boredom.  My wife learned to knit during the required "Bonehead Ed" classes which stood between her and being permitted to teach.  She was taught the history of public education but she wasn't taught much about her subject matter. Our educational establishment values certification far above competence.

Contrast with Japan

Not so long ago, the Wall Street Journal article would have been about educational achievements in Japan.  Japanese schools have fallen out of the international running in recent years, along with their economy as a whole.  We know from recent history that the Japanese know how to run a productive, effective education system and they know how to manage world-class businesses, but they've quit doing nearly so well.

Contrast with the US

We've seen a flurry of articles about the 50th anniversary of the Russians putting the first Sputnik into orbit.  Many of the articles pointed out that the Russian achievement in space made us feel challenged.  Having our competitive spirits aroused, we Americans reformed science education and went on to dominate the world from the point of view of technology.

For some reason, we no longer feel challenged, even though we're threatened in a much more fundamental sense by the rise of Indian and Chinese technologists - or, perhaps, the weight of our bureaucracy has made it impossible for us to rise to the challenges.

Education in the Confucian Cycle

A high-achievement education system can make low achievers look bad; the Finns deal with that problem by having the gifted students help the less able instead of holding back all students the way our system does.

The real problem which makes high-achievement education so hard to sustain over the long haul in government schools which don't have to compete for budget or students is that real education is a lot of work for teachers.  As we've pointed out, the all-too-human tendency of government employees to try to increase their budget and decrease the amount of work they have to do was documented thousands of years ago by Confucius.

The New York Sun article points out that "education practices in the United States are designed to 'level off' all students into the vast middle ground lest we damage the self-esteem of those performing at lower levels."  It's true that protecting the self-esteem of the dumber students is the stated reason for not teaching anybody anything much; nobody points out that "leveling off" education is a lot less work for teachers.

Our universities and private schools which have to compete for every tuition dollar are the best in the world and are opening campuses abroad; our public schools which have no worries about getting money and students are lousy.  That's why we're convinced that regardless of whether government pays for education, government shouldn't provide education.  Private sector schools have been shown over and over to be much more cost effective.

It Takes A Crisis

American education can perform well; we led the world in science and innovation for 30 years after Sputnik.  Japanese education can perform well; Japanese schools were the subject of many admiring articles while the Japanese were recovering from the crisis of being bombed flat during WW II.  In both cases, high performance was brought about because government managed to convey a sense of crisis.  Our government cited Sputnik; the Japanese government cited the fact that although they exported 15% of GNP, they imported 14% and ran the whole country on a 1% margin.

The Finns live in a small country which shares a long land border with the Soviet Union.  They know very well that Russia has always had a pretty brisk attitude towards small, nearby countries which make up what the Russians call the "near abroad."  The Finnish sense of crisis is permanent due to geography; being near Russia keeps a small country on its toes.  The Japanese and Americans grew wealthy through the fruits of their educational systems but both countries lost their sense of crisis.  With wealth, we became fat, dumb, and happy.

It's fascinating that recent immigrants, who've left countries which aren't as wealthy as ours to make a better life in America, work as hard as we used to for a while.  But, as the Sun points out, the longer they're here, the more they puck up on our hedonistic, me-centered culture and start to slack off.

This would be OK if our position of economic prominence were somehow assured, but it's not.  The Chinese, the Indians, and most everybody else in the world is gearing up to compete with us.  Over the long term, we won't be able to afford a lifestyle that's so much more comfortable than the rest of the world unless we remain competitive.

We got fat, dumb, and happy.  Recent events have made us less fat and less happy, but we're still dumb.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

I see many things and read many words in my travels down this infobahn and I have never read more prescient words than yours.

I've pointed my meager readership to this post in the hope that it might resonate ... somehow.

You have been now bookmarked and filed in a very special place in my world.

On top.

Once again, thank you for your insight.

March 16, 2008 9:45 AM
After 6th grade I no longer had to try to pass any classes. If I didn't pass a class, which happened senior year, was because they actually required homework. Most other classes, if they had homework, didn't matter. Most classes I could, and did, sleep through in it's near entirety. Now I pay for my lack of efforts but I also recall a few classes that challenged me, with material and a good teacher, and I flourished under those conditions. Now I pine for what could have been, or rather really, what should have been.
March 16, 2008 10:21 AM
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