America’s Education Priorities: We Have the Education System We Want

            On just about any day of the week, you can open the newspaper or turn on the television and see and hear headlines about the poor state of American education.  Parents, educators, and politicians are continuously debating reforms that they say must take place in education if America’s children are to compete in the world market.  Year after year after year, we hear the same reform rhetoric about education, but little is ever done about it.  Why?  I have heard it said, and I have come to believe that in America the reason very little ever truly changes in education is that we already have in place the educational system we want for our children, and that the truth about education reform is that it is little more than a smoke screen for our real priorities.  Like it or not, education today is a direct reflection of what we hold important, our biases, and our beliefs about who we are as a nation, and as a result, the odds of education truly ever changing are very slim.  That is because, in spite of what we say and do, we have in place the education system we want.  Where the education priority of most countries is academics, in the United States our priority is threefold – academics, athletics, and the arts.  In most countries, the school day is academic oriented with maybe some time set aside for a physical education class, but in the United States academics competes with athletics and the arts for time in the school schedule.

            I spent sixteen years as a high school coach, and I believe athletics as well as the arts are an integral part of a well-rounded education.  However, when a student can spend as much or more time during the school day in elective classes such as football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and track and/or in music based performance classes such as band and show choir as they do in mathematics or science then maybe it is time to question our priorities.  If not, then it stands to reason that we have our educational priorities exactly where we want them.  If that is the case, maybe it is time to shut up about how our students compare academically with students from other nations where the non-academic classes listed above are rarely a part of the school day.  It does not make sense to compare our students who spend as much as 40% of their school day lifting weights, practicing dribbling the ball, batting practice, singing, dancing, and marching to students from other nations who spend maybe 14% of their school day in non-academic classes.  To make such a comparison is like comparing the proverbial apples to oranges.

            I can feel my ears burning and the sharp barbs of criticism shooting through my veins from having the audacity to tread on the sacred grounds of athletics and the arts.  However, I am not against either, and as I said earlier, I believe both are integral parts of a child’s education, and I stand by that.  However, my point is that if academics are our true priority then extra-curricular activities should be held after school and they should not be competing for academic time with such classes as mathematics and science.  Athletes, musicians, and dancers can train and practice for their choice of extra-curricular activities after school just as well as they can during the school day.  In fact, if that happened, some of them might actually have time to get involved in more advanced math and science classes, or they might find time for additional academic tutoring in other academic areas such as language arts and social studies.

            As the javelin arcs across the grey sky and impales itself between my shoulder blades, I can hear the coaches, directors, and community screaming and wailing about how moving extra-curricular activities to after school would destroy their competitive edge and severely dampen chances of ever competing for or winning a state championship.  First, if the same rules are applied and enforced for everybody, I say that is hogwash, and second, I say, “So what?”  What are our priorities anyway?  Is it our priority to compete for and win state championships, or is it our priority to educate children to compete and flourish in a global society?  In America, I believe the answer is to do both, and that is why I believe that we already have the education system in place that we want for our children.  That is also why I believe it is ludicrous for our children to be compared to children from around the globe when our priorities are so different.  Only in the public school system in the United States is there a multiple system of educational priorities in place, so why should we worry about where we stand academically in the world when it is clear that educationally we march to the beat of a different drummer.

            America’s multiple priorities in education makes world comparisons irrelevant.  However, rankings, lists, and comparisons are all part of our 21st Century culture.  The news media, politicians, and late night TV hosts would be lost without a top ten or a top twenty-five list, but are those lists really fair?  Of course not!  For a fair assessment of where American children stand in the world, the assessment instruments must be updated.  PISA, TIMMS, and other tests used to rank students should be revamped to include not only academics but athletic and artistic performance proficiency as well.  By developing a formula that calculates student success based on academic achievement, athletic achievement, and artistic achievement as proficiency measures, a more accurate picture of how American children compare to the children of the world could be fairly determined.  Heck, in the absence of a test to measure athletic proficiency, we could always average in medal numbers from the winter and summer Olympics, and for artistic achievement, we could factor in scores from school age versions of American Idol, The Voice, and maybe even a teen version of Dancing with the Stars.  If such revolutionary revisions were made to PISA and TIMMS, I believe American children could once again take their rightful place at the top of the rankings.  If America’s true priorities were factored into the assessment mix, I doubt seriously if Finland, Japan, Germany or any other country would ever kick our butts again on the PISA or TIMMS assessments.  It is time we stopped being judged by the priorities of the rest of the world, and started being judged on American priorities.


©Jack Linton, March 17, 2014

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