Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why We're Behind

I just finished the book Outliers, one of the more fascinating tomes I've read. One of the chapters deals with why Asian students achieve more than American kids. Part of the reason for this is the Asian culture, one that emphasize hard work and determination. Millions of these children are raised in the rice patties and there's a saying among the rice farmers that one will be rich if one works 360 days a year and gets up before dawn. A bit different from most American households.

But there's another reason for the Asians' academic superiority - the amount of time spent in school each year. Here in the U.S., kids average about 180 school days per annum and have about 3 months off in the summer, something that dates back to when this country was mainly agrarian and children were needed in the fields. Those days are over but the tradition remains. And Americans, both young and old, would really protest losing that block of free time that we've all grown fond of.

Asian kids pretty much go to school year 'round. They average 220-260 school days a year. School is as valued a part of their culture as video games are in ours. But their success on tests is not a racial thing. In the U.S., in schools where longer school days and longer school years have been instituted, scores have shot through the roof. The students adjust to the stricter standards and develop all sorts new self-discipline. When they get home from school, they do homework, an idea that is getting increasingly farfetched in the U.S.

Now we all know that all work and no play can create a warped world for a child. We don't want to rob children of the joy and play that kids are supposed to experience. But it sure seems like American schools could split the difference and maybe knock a month and a half off the summer break. Could it happen? Very doubtful. Parents, teachers, kids, and, ahem, school bus drivers would be beyond furious. The tourist industry would scream bloody murder. And personally, even as a retired teacher who would be only marginally affected by such a change, I would grimace over giving up a few precious weeks of summer.

I guess it all comes down to how badly the country wants to succeed. And in America, the majority of folks have no problem anymore with less-than-stellar schools.

1 comment:

mom2mlb said...

I just got through reading this book for one of my master's reading classes. While I agree with you that it is an excellent book, I feel that there is something you forget to recognize. This would be that America is the only country in the world that gives an education to ALL children. All other countries separate the children at an early age and only the brightest and most promising children get to continue with higher education. It is these children that are taking the tests and scoring so highly. America provides an education to all students regardless. To compare the success of Asian students to American students is in all actuality like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, they are both fruit, but the similarities end at that point.
You do have a point about the summer holiday though because research has shown that the lapse in education over the summer has negative consequences on many of our students, especially those with low SES students. This is a factor because these students typically do not have access to resources such as going to the DMA over the summer. They also typically do not have the same access to literature as higher SES students do due to lack of books in the library. So, for those students, shortening the summer would be beneficial. However, you still must take into consideration that if you are comparing what you define as success as making the same high scores on a test as other countries, this concept still will not bring about your overall expectation. I guess it all comes down to what your definition of success is.