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It makes no sense: Puzzling over Obama’s State of the Union Speech

Posted: 2011-01-31

This is from Yong Zhao blog, Jan. 30, 2011. It speaks truth to power but sadly, power speaks only to money.





âIt makes no senseâ is perhaps President Obamaâs favorite phrase, using it twice in his 2011 State of the Union speech. I like the sound of it and what lies behind itâa simple way to point out the obviously illogical things that need to change. That is how I feel about the education section of his speech. It makes no sense.



President Obama wants to win the future by âout-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.â â[I]f we want to win the future -â if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas -â then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.â



How to win the race to educate our kids?



More math, more science, more high school diplomas, more college graduates, more Race to the Top, more standards and standardization, more carrots and clubs for teachers and schools, and no TV.



Why?



Because China and India âstarted educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science;ââ because â[t]he quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations;â and because âAmerica has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.â



None of these makes much sense to me because they are either factually false or logically confusing. For one, President Obama suggested that parents make sure the TV is turned off. If every parent followed his suggestion and turned off the TV, there would be no one to watch his State of the Union next year. As with everything else, there is good TV and there is bad TV. More seriously, I did some fact checking and logical reasoning and here is what I found out.



Is it true that âChina and India started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science?â



No, China has actually started to reduce study time for their children, with less emphasis on math and science



I am not familiar with education in India so I will stick to China and I assume President Obama meant education in schools, not education at home. Unless he meant 50 years ago, the statement is completely false. The school starting age in China has remained the same at age six since the 1980s when Chinaâs first Compulsory Education Law was passed in 1986. Since the 1990s, China has launched a series of education reforms aimed at reducing school hours and decreasing emphasis on mathematics. According to a recent statement from the Ministry of Education (in Chinese):



Since the implementation of the âNew Curriculum,â the total amount of class time during the compulsory education stage (grades 1 to 9) has been reduced by 380 class hours. During primary grades (grades 1 to 6), class time for mathematics has been reduced by 140 class hours, while 156 more class hours have been added for physical education. In high school, 347 class hours have been taken out of required courses and 410 class hours added for electives. (Peopleâs Daily, http://edu.people.com.cn/GB/10320480.html)



Is it true that âthe quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations?â



It depends how one measures quality. If measured in terms of test scores on international assessments, yes, but these test scores do not necessarily indicate the quality of math and science education and certainly do not predict a nationâs economic prosperity or capacity for innovation.




When he says that âthe quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations,â President Obama ignores the fact that American students performance on international tests have been pretty bad for a long time, and believe it or not, has got better in recent years. In the 1960s, Americaâs 8th graders ranked 11th out of 12 countries and 12th graders ranked 12 out of 12 countries on the First International Mathematic Study. Americaâs 12th gradersâ average score ranked 14th out of 18 countries that participated in the First International Science Study. In the 1970s and 80s, Americaâs 12th graders did not do any better on the Second International Mathematics study, with ranks of 12, 14, 12, and 12 out of 15 educational systems (13 countries) on tests of number systems, algebra, geometry, and calculus respectively. On the Second International Science Study, American studentsâ performance was the worst (out of 13 countries with 14 education systems participating, Americaâs 12th graders ranked 14th in Biology, 12th in Chemistry, and 10th in Physics) (Data source, National Center for Educational Statistics). In 1995, Americaâs 8th graders math scores were in 28th place on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. In 2003, they jumped to 15th , and in 2007, to 9th place.



Obama also said in his speech:



Remember -â for all the hits weâve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers â no workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. Weâre the home to the worldâs best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth.



So who has made America âthe largest, most prosperous economy in the world?â Who are these most productive workers? Where did the people who created the successful companies come from? And who are these inventors that received the most patents in the world?



It has to be the same Americans who ranked bottom on the international tests. Those 12th graders with shameful bad math scores in the 1960s have been the primary work force in the US for the past 40 years. The equally poor performers on international tests in the 70s and 80s have been working for the past 30 years now. And even those poor performers on the 1995 TIMSS have entered the workforce. Apparently they have not driven the US into oblivion and ruined the countryâs innovation record.



Is it true that Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of public education in a generation?



Again, it depends. It depends on how one defines âmeaningful.â If defined as the scale of impact without questioning whether the impact is beneficial or not, it may be true but considering the actual consequences, Race to the Top is neither meaningful nor flexible. It does not focus on âwhatâs best for our kidsâ nor spark âcreativity and imagination of our people.â




I wonder if Obama knows what Race to the Top actually does because it is just the opposite of what he asks for. He says:



Whatâs more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -â the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destinyâ¦Itâs why our students donât just memorize equations, but answer questions like âWhat do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?â



âOur students donât just memorize equations, but answer questions like âWhat do you think of that idea? What would you change about the worldâ perhaps explains why the American students scored poorly on tests but have been able to build a strong economy with innovations.



But Race to the Top is about killing ideas and forcing students to memorize equations by imposing common standards and testing in only two subjects on students all over the nation; by forcing schools and teachers to teach to the tests; and by forcing states to narrow educational experiences for all students to a prescribed narrowed defined curriculum.



Race to the Top is precisely what he said it is not: âWe know whatâs possible from our children when reform isnât just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities.â It is nothing but a top-down mandate. Race to the Top applications required states and schools to be innovative in meeting the top-down mandates: adopting common standards and assessment, linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student test scores, offering more math and science learning, and allowing more charter schools. In the first round of competition, Massachusetts was penalized for not wanting to rush to adopt the common standards. Pennsylvania was penalized for proposing innovative practices in early childhood education (Source: Letâs Do the Numbers: Department of Educationâs âRace to the Topâ Program Offers Only a Muddled Path to the Finish Lin By William Peterson and Richard Rothstein)



Race to the Top is anything but what Obama says âthe work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities.â States that were desperate for cash had to use all means to coerce teachers, principals, and school boards to sign on to the application because participation of local schools was a heavily weighted criterion. And if teachers and school leaders did not agree, they risked being accused of not supporting childrenâs education.



And with regard to common standards, while it is true that they were not developed by Washington, but Washington definitely helped with billions of dollars to make them adopted nationwide.



Is it true that âAmerica has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree?â



It depends for a number of reasons. First, different countries have different definitions of a college degree. Second, not all college degrees are of equal quality. Third, the changes in rank do not necessarily indicate Americaâs decline. It could simply other countries have caught up.




President Obama may be drawing the figures from a report published by the College Board recently. The report cites OCED data and suggests that âthe educational capacity of our country continues to decline.â But the data actually do not support the statement.



According to the report, in 2007, America ranked sixth in postsecondary attainment in the world among 25-64-Year-Olds. It ranked fourth among those ages 55 to 64. But for the 25-34 age group, America ranked 12th. Simply looked at the rankings, America is indeed in decline. But looking at the percentages of postsecondary degree holders shows a different picture. For the age group of 25 to 64, 40.3% of Americans held a college degree. The two countries that were immediately ahead of America, Japan and New Zealand, had a lead of less than 1% at 41%. The other three leading countries were Russia (54%), Canada (48.3%), and Israel (43.6%). For the young age group (25-34 year olds), America had 40.4% and five out of the 11 countries led by about 2%. The countries with over 10% lead were Canada (55.8%), Korea (55.5%), Russia (55.5%), and Japan (53.7%). For those ages 55 to 64, America ranked fourth, but the percentage was 38.5%. The countries ahead of America were Russia (44.5%), Israel (43.5%), and Canada (38.9). Based on this data we can draw two conclusions. First America was never number one. Second, the percentage of college degree holders in America has actually increased.



How many more math and science graduates does the US need?



President Obama wanted âto prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.â This is driven by the belief that America does not prepare enough talents in these areas. But according to a comprehensive study based on analysis of major longitudinal datasets found âU.S. colleges and universities are graduating as many scientists and engineers as ever before.â The study was conducted by a group of researchers at Georgetown University, Rutgers University, and the Urban Institute. âOur findings indicate that STEM retention along the pipeline shows strong and even increasing rates of retention from the 1970s to the late 1990s,â says the report. However, not all STEM graduates enter the STEM field. They are attracted to other areas.



âOver the past decade, U.S. colleges and universities graduated roughly three times more scientists and engineers than were employed in the growing science and engineering workforce,â one of the studyâs co-author Lindsay Lowell was quoted in the studyâs press release, âAt the same time, more of the very best students are attracted to non-science occupations, such as finance. Even so, there is no evidence of a long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs.â



What America really needs?



President Obama actually got the destination right when he said âthe first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.â But he chose the wrong path.



To encourage American innovation starts with innovative and creative people. But a one-size-fits-all education approach, standardized and narrow curricula, tests-driven teaching and learning, and fear-driven and demoralizing accountability measures are perhaps the most effective way to kill innovation and stifle creativity.



What America really needs is to capitalize on its traditional strengthsâa broad definition of education, an education that respects individuality, tolerates deviation, celebrates diversity. America also needs to restore faith in its public education, respects teacher autonomy, and trusts local school leaders elected or selected by the people.



In addition, America needs to teach its children that globalization has tied all nations to a complex, interconnected, and interdependent chain of economic, political, and cultural interests. To succeed in the globalized world, our children need to develop a global perspective and the capacity to interact and work with different nations and cultures, the ability to market America innovations globally, and the ability to lead globalization in positive directions. That includes foreign languages and global studies.



Even the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), a direct result of Sputnik and a product during the Cold War, was broader in terms of areas of studies than conceived in Race to the Top and the blueprint for reauthorization of ESA. It included funding for math, science, foreign languages, geography, technical education, etc. Moreover, it did not impose federal mandates on local schools or states.



Heading north for south: A Chinese story for the President



A Chinese story best illustrates the danger of choosing the wrong path for the correct destination. This story was recorded in Zhan Guo Ce or the Records of the Warring States, a collection of essays about events and tales that took place during Chinaâs Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Here is my recount of the story.



The king of the state of Wei intends to attack its neighboring state of Zhao. Upon hearing the news, Ji Liang, counselor to the king rushes to see him. âYour Majesty, on my way here, I met a man on a chariot pointed to the north,â Ji Liang tells the King, âand he told me that he was going to visit Chu.â



âBut Chu is in the south, why are you headed north?â I asked.



âOh, no worry, my horses are very strong,â he told me.



âBut you should be headed south,â I told him again.



âNot to worry, I have plenty of money,â he was not concerned.



âBut still you are headed the wrong direction,â I pointed out yet again.



âI have hired a very skillful driver,â was this manâs reply.



âI worry, your majesty, that the better equipped this man was,â Ji Liang says to the King, âthe farther away he would be from his destination.â âYou want to be a great king and win respect from all people,â Ji Liang concludes, âYou can certainly rely on our strong nation and excellent army to invade Zhao and expand our territory. But I am afraid the more you use force, the farther away you will be from your wishes.â

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