Sunday, July 20, 2008

NCLB: Japanese priorities for an American system

I've been spot-reading the blog "All Kids on Track" for a while now, and it's time well spent. In addition to adroitly exploring the cyclical nature of money passing from pro-testing regimes installed by conservatives to conservative-owned testing organizations and back, it lays bare a parent's raw frustration with the NCLB-testing regime. As misguided as the current system is, at least I don't have a child of my own who is being directly victimized by it.

One of my major objections to the NCLB/MCAS model is its attempt to convert the American system into an improved Japanese model. (I use Japan as a shorthand for several East Asian systems in particular.) I think our resources are better used aiming to improve the American model.

Almost every critique of American schools over the last decade starts with test scores. Math scores, sometimes science scores. Look here, here, here, here, or here. I have no grudge against American students having a good grasp of science and math...those are essential. (Don't even get me started about the fact that many shot-callers on education "reform" are pushing more science education, while simultaneously denying the scientific theories of cosmology and evolution.) Mind you, I wish we'd hear more about the fact that Americans can't find Iraq on a blank map for example, but whichever.

Math and science are an important piece of success in the 21st century, but they're only one piece. A symbol of American economic success is symbolized is our intensive winning of patents. While lagging Japan in many measures, the United States is consistently first or second in the world in holding and receiving patents. This does get to science education of course, but much more so it gets to ingenuity. Aping previous experiments and drilling in trig does not lead one to ingenuity, but that's what we're told we must do. We must sacrifice our lead in this field.

Our medical and electronics advances are an important part of American success. But they're not the entirety of it...they're not even the most lucrative part. You know what is the single greatest export category of the United States?

Apparel? Not really.
Electronics? No.
Automobiles? No.
Raw materails? Not anymore.
Agriculture? Nope.

Popular culture. Movies. TV. Sports. The ocean of images and attitudes so natural is the single winningest product line ever rolled out by the Great Fifty. The single thing that makes the most money for the United States is what we create. The use of art and emotion to create identification and interest. Our culture is omnipresent. The Mickey Mouse symbol is one of the most recognized the world over. Everyone knows who Madonna is. You can buy Coke anywhere -- not because some science nerd created the idealized soft drink, but because some graphic arts and ELA nerds came up with advertising campaigns that spread it around the world. On the imdb all-time box office list, the first movie developed outside the American movie industry clocks in at number 229 . The Super Bowl is consistently one of the top 5 international broadcasts, even though almost nobody else plays American football.

This is what America is good at, and has been for decades!

A photograph of Bert from Sesame Street showed up at a Bangladeshi protest in support of Osama bin Laden. A guy burning an American flag on the Gaza Strip wore a New York Giants sweatshirt. Even when we're hated, we're loved. Our culture is inescapable, and everything from bicameralism to the sitcom has spread from our shores.

And math isn't a part of isn't a big part either. The contribution that America makes to the world, and for which it is paid, comes from ideas, not number. It's coming up with and working with ideas, and ideas is the province of English and literature. It comes from going through and studying history. From art, music, drama, graphic design.

What are we cutting in the new regime to make way for more math and science so that we can "compete" with Japan? History. English. Especially art and music.

We're trying to beat Japan at its own game, even though we're still tops at ours. We're sacrificing what makes America great to imitate what makes others great. It's like Picasso giving up his style to try to out-Impressionist Monet. So who's really winning here?

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