Revamping Education in U.S. Schools

Instead of wallowing in complacency, we need to rethink our national standards and compete directly with well-educated foreign students

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of perspectives on the documentary Two Million Minutes.

Concerns about the lack of U.S. competitiveness are often dismissed as fear-mongering designed to promote an unpatriotic agenda. Many American educators, politicians, and pundits are adamant that the sheer number of highly educated and well-trained scientists, engineers, managers, and doctors coming from rapidly developing foreign nations are no cause for alarm. Most of all, we brazenly defend our culture and education system as capable of producing superior, "well-rounded" children more adept at facing challenges than their international peers.

Even as we indulge such tendencies, we wonder why once-mighty American automotive giants, including General Motors (GM) and Ford (F), are struggling, why high-paying science and medical jobs are being outsourced to Bangalore, and why high-tech companies, such as Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), and Cisco Systems (CSCO), in some cases struggle to find talented engineers born and educated in the U.S. Many choose to blame foreigners and critics instead of facing up to the consequences and causes of a widespread lack of focus on science and technology; uncompetitive, unchallenging, or failing public schools; and a government that hinders scientific progress and forces researchers to relocate to find funding and respect.

Some argue that a U.S. social upbringing is more economically valuable than a solid educational foundation overseas. The idea is that because many Indian and Chinese children grow up without the clubs, sports, music, and other opportunities afforded U.S. kids, they lack the social grounding they'll need to succeed in Western businesses. This view does a disservice to young people in India and China and evokes an arrogant view that suggests no matter what, Western culture will prevail.

Studying Harder

I have encountered these crosscurrents in a direct, personal way through my involvement in the documentary Two Million Minutes, which contrasts the experiences of high school students in the U.S., China, and India. The subtext is that Indian and Chinese students work harder on math and science and are more competitive and focused than their U.S. counterparts.

I know this because I am one of the U.S. students. For the record, I take offense at the suggestion that I lack ambition. My plans were unformed not because of apathy, but because of an appreciation of the wide range of fields I might pursue with success. I didn't have much interest in biology, chemistry, or physics, mainly because I didn't envision myself pursuing a related career. I did, however, spend hundreds of hours independently studying computer graphics, which is now my major in college. What I liked, I did well. Everything else, I did well enough.

And I had the chance to make those choices in the context of a top-notch high school that afforded me numerous opportunities for involvement and that boasts a dedicated staff and facilities found in very few schools. The two Indian students from the film visited the school and were astounded by the Olympic-size swimming pool, massive football stadium, planetarium, and other facilities that wouldn't exist if Carmel (Ind.) High School students did not routinely perform at the highest levels of achievement by national standards.

Overseas Comparisons

Unfortunately, the workforce of tomorrow will not be determined by U.S. national standards. Moreover, many U.S. high school students don't get to attend a Carmel equivalent. The Internet and global communications have erased the boundaries that once gave domestic workers an advantage. If we continue to rank our students only against each other within the country, we will have no way of knowing how we compare with those overseas, many of whom will ultimately compete with American students for jobs.

Resetting rankings is only a start. Other steps include parental involvement at an early age, encouragement of academic pursuits, and rewarding educational achievement as much as we laud athletic victories. We need measurable standards for educators and schools and greater emphasis on applied learning, rather than the rote memorization that often characterizes preparation for standardized tests. What's more, we need to make better use of the time spent in classrooms, relying less on hours of mindless busywork.

These and the other needed changes will require sacrifices, but the U.S. has never been a country to hide from challenges. I have no doubt we can compete in the emerging global economy, but we cannot continue to ignore signs of the shift, nor persist in relying on complacent methods that are no longer compatible with the needs of today's workforce. Let's break our old habits and strive for greatness once again—for the sake of my generation and those who come after.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.