Amollo: In education debate, examine relevance of teaching

Benson Amollo

I’ve recently joined the dissent on the alarming costs of education that continue to plague Americans. It’s a no brainer — the high costs of higher education do not guarantee any returns.

There are also parallels being drawn on the declining quality of the American education system. Several statistics place the American school system, largely looking at high school, at a sorry 26th ranking globally. Of those numbers, the most dwarfed are math and science with global rankings of 25th and 26th respectively. Troubling? There is indeed a minefield of alarming statistics out there.

Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek and a show-host for CNN, alarmingly cast America’s future as a technology leader as bleak and deeply wounded if the education system does not catapult back to the top. Of course, statistics that paint gloom on student scores in standardized tests such as SATs, and a host of other graduate entry programs for colleges, would justify a disconnect between the levels of expectation and the way that students are taught.

Industry leaders have also taken the not-so-high road at castigation. They are faulting what goes on in the classroom. In other words, they claim that teachers either don’t know how to teach or are resorting to methods so ill-timed as to deliver expectations. Leading those charges is Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who recently attributed the “decline” in America’s education system to poor design of the school system. Gates claimed that schools must be redesigned and teaching methods overhauled to respond to new realities.

However, while all the concerns being raised over the decline in the quality of education would be the needed step toward righting misstep, there is a thick cloud of American exceptionalism that is so blinding in the debate. No one is ready to appreciate that America’s downward shift in ranking should not factor greatly on the quality of education.

What if those shifts are a pointer to the rise of the rest? Is there any doubt that countries like India, China and even Kenya have made remarkable progress in their education systems over the last few decades? And could others have improved without the quality of education in America declining?

In fact, it is unfair to make the decline conclusion without factoring the growth of America’s population — a cultural mix that has also seen a steep rise in immigration over the last few decades. The rise of the rest of the world should bear testimony to, in columnist Thomas Friedman’s words, “a world so flat.” Globalization has its children. Countries that were doing badly in the last decades or even century, have borrowed proper practices from the rest that had learned the same ahead of time; they’re simply applying the practices and getting better.

So, everything considered, it is utterly unfair to declare the demise of America’s gloried education just by comparison. It is a hard sell, especially when one is witness to a streaming number of new students from India, China, Nepal, Namibia, Kenya and elsewhere in the world coming to U.S. campuses. To the rest of the world, American education still ignites a lot of envy. And the numbers testify.

Opinion leaders, in a bid to inject new ideas and more policy issues into the education system, will have to realize that a huge economy such as this will have teething problems with her most sensitive sectors, education being a leading one, when the economy takes a nosedive. If anything, higher education has become more competitive. More than ever, students have to stand up to the mark and prove that they have the “edge” to fit into a particular program in a chosen college.

The one thing that I would insist that policy makers look into is the relevance of what students are learning. It is true that there are serious time wasters in schools. At the college level, they masquerade as general education courses. The package is a notoriety that forces students to memorize information that immediately becomes irrelevant on the last day of class. It is the tale of several schools insisting on a religious course while technical disciplines like information technology remain optional.

Finally, most arguments on America’s declining education standards are a mere conventional shot on the arm that looks at success from a straitjacket perspective. For most, if education is not producing trained doctors, engineers or lawyers, then it’s doomed to failure. The education system is being excused from producing risk takers who would purposely grow the economy, but establishing business ventures can only be a sorry excuse. An education should be no more or less than a reflection of our individual requirements.

It’s foolhardy to strive to be different from one another, because we are. History has proven that some students excel academically, whilst others achieve their merits through determination, perseverance and a resilient nature. There are few subjects that cater for students who think more creatively than analytically. A student may be able to solve a complex calculus in less than 40 seconds, but not string a grammatically well-written sentence together for their English exam. We have varying levels of talents, skills and intelligence that we must embrace.