Thursday, May 25, 2006


Problem No. 5: Education (or is it Culture?)

I continue my list of the serious problems facing our country, far more serious than any of the external threats. There is a lot of press coverage about the poor state of our schools, about the lack of funding for them, about the difficulty of recruiting good teachers, etc, etc. I do not want to go over that.

I am afraid that the lack of skills amongst our students is not because of limited offerings in our schools but because the students do not take advantage of what is offered.

What evidence do I have for that statement? I taught at college level for over 30 years. At some point during the last decade of my teaching I noticed that the best students in my undergraduate classes were either immigrants or children of recent immigrants. (My graduate classes were almost entirely "international" students.) I used to teach upper division classes in Computer Science that usually had 30-40 students so I would come to know most of them and find out about their background. I thought that this might have been a peculiarity of my school, so I asked colleagues at other Universities. Same thing!

It seems that, at least at the University level, students who were either not born in the U.S. or whose parents were not born in the U.S. were making better use of the available opportunities. I notice that this was also happening in high schools. A large fraction of high school students who would win distinctions that were mentioned in our local paper, were also children of immigrants or themselves immigrants.

I was told that immigrant parents would tutor their children, so their better skills were not due to the quality of the schools. But why don't parents whose families have been in the U.S. for several generations do not tutor their children? I think the argument is specious. Not all high performing immigrant students have highly educated professional parents. Also for upper class University courses parental tutoring seems almost impossible.

In short, there is something in American culture that discourages students from taking full advantage of the available educational opportunities.

Should I say more?

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