Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is American Education Too Competitive?

Is the American educational system too focused on competition?  I would say "yes," not that anybody really cares what I think.  But this month, I am in good company, as that is the position that Deborah Stipek, Dean of the Stanford School of Education, takes in an editorial in this month's Science magazine.

Stipek argues that the burden to be on top among higher-achieving American high school students leaves them anxious and physically exhausted, makes them prone to cheat, and robs them of the intrinsic beauty and interest of the subject and the joy of learning.  The more they fill their transcripts with high test scores, exemplary GPAs, academic honors, and mountains of extracurricular activities, the emptier their actual experience of education is.  As Stipek said in a telephone call to reporters, "For the most part, high school has become for many of our students not preparation for life or college but preparation for the college application."

Stipek also believes that the impetus for change must come from the schools--high schools and colleges--rather than from the students.  She urges high schools to reduce this pressure by such steps as:

  • linking subject matter to students' lives and interests
  • focusing more on active student involvement in innovative solutions, problem solving, and hands-on experiments and activities and less on getting the right answer on a standardized exam;
  • giving students multiple opportunities to achieve higher grades (by allowing papers to be rewritten or tests to be retaken, for example)
  • publicizing and pushing a wider number and variety of high-quality educational options rather than merely worshiping at the alter of the top 10 or 20 elite institutions
  • priding itself on how well it matches all its students to the postsecondary education best to each individual, rather than on the number that were accepted by "name" universities
  • focusing and celebrating learning at whatever level, rather than test scores
She also states that colleges must do their part as well, and to encourage a student body that is passionately interested in the educational offerings at that school over having a high average SAT or GPA score.

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