I was recently talking to my daughter about her frustration with the nursery school in which she’d enrolled her oldest daughter, now four. Samantha is not only a precocious four-year-old, but mentally she’s as advanced as a second grader. She can write her full name, read most first grade books by herself, and do most of the sums first graders do. Like me, though, she doesn’t like crowds, and when she’s around large groups of children around her age who start to engage in rowdy play, she tends to stand on the fringe and watch them ruefully. Truth be told, she’s probably more comfortable with adults than most kids. Which is not to say that she does not associate with children her age; she does; just in small groups, and on her own terms.
The problem my daughter was facing was, despite Samantha’s obvious academic excellence and maturity the nursery school teacher decided she was ‘socializing’ effectively like the other kids. At first, this same teacher said Samantha lacked physical coordination, but I put paid to that with photos of her climbing a 12-foot climbing rock unaided, and walking a cargo ladder like a pro. She has all the physical coordination she needs; she’s just not into the wild behavior that apparently this teacher’s education guide tells her is appropriate for children that age.
After that conversation I got to thinking about the American education system, and how it has changed since I was in grade school back in the 1950s—and, not necessarily for the better. Studies have shown that despite increasing numbers of students graduating from high school, fewer are prepared to succeed in college or successfully enter the work force. In December, the Department of Education reported that U.S. high school graduation rates hit a record high in 2013-2014, reaching 82%, the highest ever recorded. Despite this, a recent study of graduating 12th graders found that fewer than 40% were ready for college level work. Business leaders across the country fear that not enough students are prepared for higher-skilled jobs—something I noted to my dismay during my last ten years in the Foreign Service when I encountered college-educated individuals who were smart enough to pass the highly competitive Foreign Service Exam, but were unable to write effective reports or conduct briefings. Among the skills lacking are collaboration and communication, things that our schools, teaching to standardized tests, do not teach. All this adds up to a lack of American competitiveness in the world of academia and work.
Considering this, I’ve taken it a step further, and come up with a theory that will totally bum my granddaughter’s nursery school teacher out; our school system from nursery school to 12th grade is preparing our kids to fail at college and at work. I’m not faulting this poor teacher. She’s probably following the guidelines provided to her by the system, and doing what she was taught to do in school (and, I’m assuming here that she has at least a Bachelor’s degree in education). But, in following this standardized procedure, what she’s doing is creating a group of four and five-year-old drones who follow instructions, follow the crowd, and do little thinking for themselves. Those who try to think for themselves are ostracized as ‘unsocialized,’ and efforts are made to force them to conform. This follows them all the way through the system until they come out the other end with a high school diploma that has, unfortunately, prepared them to be an assembly line worker in a factory of the type that hardly exists in this country anymore.
News flash to all you educators out there: American industry is no longer the smokestack, assembly line variety. We’re a knowledge management, financial management society, and the lack of preparation provided by our education system means that many of our companies have to hire foreign talent to fill critical positions. My youngest son works for an IT firm in Herndon, Virginia, and he tells me that the majority of his fellow engineers are from India, China, and Russia American industry, according to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, American companies are change-resistant and conservative, and wedded to using extrinsic motivations to get workers to produce more, rather than using intrinsic motivation as a primary way, based on what behavioral scientists have learned since the mid-20th century. Educational institutions, despite being where this research was conducted, are as conservative and resistant to change as industry. We’re still using standards to educate (train) our kids that was only barely appropriate to prepare them to work on an assembly line where they did the same task for their entire career, but are entirely inadequate for an economy where innovation and self-motivation are the keys to success.
If the American education system is to contribute to productivity in the 21st century, it’s time to change. And, that change has to start at the bottom.