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To See Where American Education Excels, Look Beyond The Tests

This article is more than 6 years old.

Americans are feeling down about their educational system, but should they?

The web is inundated with op-eds, book excerpts and alarmist claims about how great education is in Finland and East Asia, and why Korean and Chinese students are far superior to Americans in math and physics. Every time another round of standardized test results come out, we draw the whip of self-flagellation and lash ourselves with numerous theories of what we are doing wrong. Yet, American universities are flooded with applications from abroad and cities like Boston and San Francisco continue to shine as global beacons of innovation. So the question is this: Is the U.S. educational system getting something right after all?

When the next round of results come out, let’s remember to interpret them by thinking critically in a broader context. Our students do it — so should we.

I am a Chilean by birth and did all my undergraduate education in Chile. Since moving to the United States 10 years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. educational system up close, mostly from the vantage points of elite institutions: Notre Dame, Harvard and MIT. This has allowed me to compare American students to their international counterparts.

I am not an expert in education or policy, but I have several observations that I believe are important to consider — observations that highlight positive aspects of students educated in the U.S. that we often fail to acknowledge.

Though American students are — on average — worse at math than their international counterparts, students from abroad are too mechanical in their process. While international students are better at knowing how to calculate things, U.S. students are good at understanding why we calculate things. U.S. students value conceptual aspects over the mechanics, and by doing so have an applied focus that it is often hard to find in international students.

American students are also better presenters, adept at weaving their thoughts into a logical progression. They make their subject matter more lively and accessible by telling stories, introducing examples and clarifying analogies. They have a good sense of what they should highlight, and what they should push to the appendix. These are the skills of a good writer, and are essential in a modern work environment where communication and presentations are important.

Another strong skill of U.S. students is their ability to build and work in teams. American students are — on average — much better at creating collaborations that bring together the right people with the right skills. U.S. students are eager to network and have no problem introducing themselves to other people in email, or in person. The ability of U.S. students to weave collaborations is a skill that is not captured in standardized tests, but that is essential in real life.

Last, but not least, I find American students to be more creative and hands-on. The creativity that I see from many U.S. students is not based on misguided flights of the imagination but on concrete, implementable ideas. Moreover, American students roll-up their sleeves and try things. This is surprising for someone like me, who comes from a country where most engineers do not know how to use a wrench — although they are pretty good at calculating integrals.

The creativity that I see from many U.S. students is not based on misguided flights of the imagination but on concrete, implementable ideas.

So we can keep on bashing the quality of the American educational system, which is geographically spotty and certainly has limitations, or we can build on the skills which U.S. students do well — oral communication, team-building and strategic thinking. When we understand the value of these skills, it is hard to be a total pessimist.

The lesson of my modest observations is that there are important skills that the system is developing well, and that our efforts to improve other dimensions should not squeeze out the activities that contribute to the development of these skills. Using standardized tests for feedback is fine, but there is much they are unable to capture. So when the next round of results come out, let’s remember to interpret them by thinking critically in a broader context. Our students do it — so should we.


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This program aired on September 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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