I’m not much of a nationalist. I tend to think that people do pretty awful things in the name of misguided patriotism. But in an Olympic year, it’s hard to get away from that rah-rah USA! USA! mentality.
Clearly, there are some things the USA does very, very well. We swim really fast. We tumble across mats brilliantly. I thought for our opening day today that I’d take a look at what it is that the good old USA does right when it comes to what we do here—the business of education.
If you’ve been in public education for any length of time, you know that it’s a fraught subject. We hear all year long about everything we do wrong. Our kids rank low in STEM scores. Our education is expensive but unproductive. Our students lack resilience—that quality that lets socioeconomically disadvantaged students perform better than predicted.
If you read the paper, listen to politicians, or look at test scores, you might think that the US educational system is a disaster. But you’d be missing out on the many things that we do right.
1. We are really, truly inclusive.
This wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, my cousin took care of women in her home who had been released from the institution where they grew up—women with intellectual or developmental disabilities. They had been warehoused rather than educated from a very young age—and this wasn’t that long ago! And long before that, we didn’t educate girls at all, or children of color. But today, our national goal is to educate every child to the upper limit of his or her ability. Rich kids and poor kids. Boys and girls. Children with disabilities. Children whose first language is Spanish, or Vietnamese, or Yoruba. Gay, straight, transgender. Urban and rural. Pregnant kids. Kids with HIV. Even, since Plyler versus Doe, undocumented children of immigrants. They all have the right to a free public education as close as possible to the community where they live. And unlike many nations, we will pay to transport them, we won’t charge them for uniforms or books, and we’ll do it for 13 years or more.
Of course, all of this inclusivity contributes both to the expense of our schools and to our mediocre test scores when we compare ourselves to other nations. You give something up when you make a promise to educate everyone. I’m going to suggest that our promise is worth it.
2. We offer breadth and options.
Nearly all of the countries we competed against in the Olympics offer curricula that are more rigid and more limited than ours. Many countries weed out college-bound students early in their careers and offer no alternatives to the narrow tracks onto which they place their students at a young age.
We offer not only the traditional liberal arts education, but we also include physical education, music, fine arts, and health. We clear a path as much as possible for those students who want to attend college, but more and more, we offer other pathways for students with other goals. In cities with magnet schools, students can focus their high school careers on media technology, or on dramatic arts, and even here in Tompkins County, the New Visions Program offers options for students whose interests lie in medicine, life sciences, and soon, engineering.
And once students are into higher education, the US system really shines. Nowhere else on earth can students find programs in bioethics, robotics, culinary arts, psycholinguistics, aviation, agricultural engineering, and hospitality, all within a 50-mile radius.
3. We nurture as we educate.
One of the reasons our schools cost so much to run is that we try to mitigate social problems within the school setting. Other nations don’t necessarily feed their children at school. They rarely offer psychological or social services. In many nations whose students do well on standardized tests, children and adults are not expected to have a relationship beyond the formal student-teacher connection.
It’s different in the US. We all know teachers here who are mentors and life coaches in addition to being content instructors. We talk about educating the whole child, promoting physical and mental health, safety, and a personalized learning plan. We are not always successful in our efforts, but we try.
My husband thinks that only speed, goals, heights, and distances should count in Olympic sports. In other words, throwing the javelin is a sport, because the achievement may be measured. Diving, on the other hand, which requires a panel of judges ticking off subjective point values about style—diving isn’t a real sport.
When I look at Olympic teams, I think about percentages. Like if we have 320 million people to choose from to make up a team, is it really that impressive that we won 121 medals—or is it more impressive that Jamaica, with only 3 million people, won 11?
Compare that to the way we evaluate schools. We like to look at numbers, because numbers are easily compared and contrasted. So we look at how much Finland pays its teachers and how well Finnish students do on tests. Teacher pay, standardized test scores—those are measurable, they’re “real sports.” But Finland educates 1.5 percent of the number of kids we educate, kids who speak 1 percent of the number of languages our kids speak. So whose achievement is really more impressive?
And then there are those subjective values—the way we treat kids, the options we offer, the fact that we let anybody play….
When you’re feeling put upon by the media, or by parents, or by the state, when you are made to feel that we’re doing a lousy job, not keeping up, failing our kids—keep your head held high. You all deserve gold medals for the work you do, and your board appreciates you every day. Let’s make this a winning year. Thank you all.