# Is our system of education really that bad?

#### thehacker3

I keep getting told by my parents how we grow up learning so much less than they have when they were growing up in the soviet union. Is our education really so inferior? I've attended top schools my entire life (until college) and I don't really think it's fair to say that I'm necessarily stupid.

My main two questions are pretty much this:

Is our education really getting that worse over time?

Is American education really as bad as Michael Moore makes it seem? Or are we just being pushed in a sense to be even smarter?

Related General Discussion News on Phys.org

#### Evo

Mentor
I keep getting told by my parents how we grow up learning so much less than they have when they were growing up in the soviet union. Is our education really so inferior? I've attended top schools my entire life (until college) and I don't really think it's fair to say that I'm necessarily stupid.

My main two questions are pretty much this:

Is our education really getting that worse over time?

Is American education really as bad as Michael Moore makes it seem? Or are we just being pushed in a sense to be even smarter?
A lot would depend on the school, the teachers in that school, etc..

#### thehacker3

Well I was referring to America as a whole. Is the average American student dumber than the average, say, Chinese student?

What about the smartest in each category? Which country is producing the smarter smart kids?

#### Jimmy Snyder

Apparently we don't teach the difference between stupidity and ignorance.

#### rasmhop

Well I was referring to America as a whole. Is the average American student dumber than the average, say, Chinese student?
How do you define dumb? The impression I get from my Chinese friend is that average Chinese students certainly are more hard working and probably know more facts. If this is how you define intelligence I suspect Chinese students are more intelligent, but personally I would be vary of trying to compare them. He puts it down to pressure from parents (and to some extent society), and to the fact that they have to work really hard early on just to become literate.

There are tests done such as the pisa tests that try to compare the student population in various countries (but AFAIK no such test included both the US and China). Personally I don't think these tests are significant, but if this is how you define intelligence then you can for instance conclude that Finland is the smartest country among the tested countries, and Mexico is the least smart.

What about the smartest in each category? Which country is producing the smarter smart kids?
Who is smarter Einstein or Newton? They are smart in their own way and it's impossible to really say that one was the smarter person. While people like to compare each other by assigning numerical values to their skills, usually people are smarter in their own way. I do not think there is a significant difference between the very top students.

#### thehacker3

How do you define dumb? The impression I get from my Chinese friend is that average Chinese students certainly are more hard working and probably know more facts. If this is how you define intelligence I suspect Chinese students are more intelligent, but personally I would be vary of trying to compare them. He puts it down to pressure from parents (and to some extent society), and to the fact that they have to work really hard early on just to become literate.

There are tests done such as the pisa tests that try to compare the student population in various countries (but AFAIK no such test included both the US and China). Personally I don't think these tests are significant, but if this is how you define intelligence then you can for instance conclude that Finland is the smartest country among the tested countries, and Mexico is the least smart.

Who is smarter Einstein or Newton? They are smart in their own way and it's impossible to really say that one was the smarter person. While people like to compare each other by assigning numerical values to their skills, usually people are smarter in their own way. I do not think there is a significant difference between the very top students.
Good answer! I was referring to dumbness as the classic definition of intelligence - not about how much you know but how quickly you can learn and apply what you learn

#### Evo

Mentor
The OP started off asking about education and it quickly hit rock bottom deciding who is smarter or dumber, of course with someone tossing in meaningless IQ scores.

It seems one of the threads pops up every 60 days or so.

#### thehacker3

The OP started off asking about education and it quickly hit rock bottom deciding who is smarter or dumber, of course with someone tossing in meaningless IQ scores.

It seems one of the threads pops up every 60 days or so.
Well intelligence is a direct result of education so it would be worth analyzing both..

#### Evo

Mentor
Well intelligence is a direct result of education so it would be worth analyzing both..
No, you can be educated and not intelligent and vice versa.

#### thehacker3

No, you can be educated and not intelligent and vice versa.
When learning in school, you develop your brain and get smarter too.. or will you argue with me on that too?

#### loseyourname

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
I initially went to college with a bunch of ex-Soviets (mostly Armenians). I used to get a kick out of their claims of how superior their educational system was. Sure thing, guys, your nation just collapsed and is in such a third world state that you're flooding into mine. One of the girls in my intro-level general bio class had a medical degree from Armenia, which apparently doesn't mean as much as it does in the US since she was only 20 and starting over in general bio because US medical licensing boards don't accept Soviet degrees. She did no better on the exams than I did. My best friend's parents were ex-Soviet engineers that also needed to start over their educations. One became a court clerk and the other a social worker.

#### thehacker3

I initially went to college with a bunch of ex-Soviets (mostly Armenians). I used to get a kick out of their claims of how superior their educational system was. Sure thing, guys, your nation just collapsed and is in such a third world state that you're flooding into mine. One of the girls in my intro-level general bio class had a medical degree from Armenia, which apparently doesn't mean as much as it does in the US since she was only 20 and starting over in general bio because US medical licensing boards don't accept Soviet degrees. She did no better on the exams than I did. My best friend's parents were ex-Soviet engineers that also needed to start over their educations. One became a court clerk and the other a social worker.
Well being an Armenian whose family came here 16.5 years ago, I can give you a lot of insight into what you're talking about.

Believe me, if the medical licensing boards accepted Soviet degrees, there would be a lot more qualified doctors in America - those degrees weren't easy to get in the Soviet Union.

My father, who had a masters in artificial intelligence in the soviet union, taught me physics in my early years so well that I flew through AP Physics C in high school with less than 20 hours of studying the entire year. He had to take courses in programming (even though he has a degree in engineering) to earn some sort of American degree and he works as one now.

My mother, who defended her dissertation in the Soviet Union, and worked as a leading professor in the language department, also had to take basic level programming classes here in America and then went to work as a programmer.

My parents and relatives got back on their feet relatively quickly because of their intelligence and ability to survive harsh conditions. Getting back on their feet in America was a joke compared to what they had to live through back in the Soviet union. Many families don't have that ability and they lose all the value their Soviet degrees hold in this country and end up living in miserable conditions.

Do you think that's fair?

#### skeptic2

No, you can be educated and not intelligent and vice versa.
Once in an electronic engineering department where I worked, there were two engineers, one with an associates degree and the other with a master's. The one with the associates grew up in Eastern Europe during WWII and was constantly fleeing from one country to the next. Not only could he not speak English well, there was no language he could speak well although he spoke a number of European languages. He was one of the best engineers I have known.

The one with a master's could talk for a half hour about anything electronic (and usually did) but couldn't design a circuit. Once when I was laying out a fairly simple printed circuit, he came over and said, "I wouldn't know where to begin."

#### loseyourname

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
My parents and relatives got back on their feet relatively quickly because of their intelligence and ability to survive harsh conditions. Getting back on their feet in America was a joke compared to what they had to live through back in the Soviet union. Many families don't have that ability and they lose all the value their Soviet degrees hold in this country and end up living in miserable conditions.

Do you think that's fair?
They were afforded the opportunity to immigrate here in the first place, an opportunity not extended to everybody. There are people the world over whose governments collapse and they die in genocides and civil wars. These "many families" get to come to a place where getting back on your feet is a joke.

#### thehacker3

There are people the world over whose governments collapse and they die in genocides and civil wars.
Like the Armenians?

That's what I'm trying to say.. After being lucky enough to survive something like that, they come to a new country to find that they have to start their entire education all over again?

#### Evo

Mentor
Like the Armenians?

That's what I'm trying to say.. After being lucky enough to survive something like that, they come to a new country to find that they have to start their entire education all over again?
Unless you are a Native American, we are all immigrants that had to start over. Yes there are some that had incredible academic credentials that did not have to, but the majority of our parents & grandparents had to, mine included.

#### Evo

Mentor
Okay, anyone want to actually discuss the OP? If not, I'll close the thread.

#### thehacker3

Unless you are a Native American, we are all immigrants that had to start over. Yes there are some that had incredible academic credentials that did not have to, but the majority of our parents & grandparents had to, mine included.
A great majority of my family had the incredible credentials you speak of and they all had to start over. That's the injustice that I'm talking about.

The thread went completely off-topic and I wish to return to the discussion regarding our education vs. other countries

#### DR13

IMO I think that the American educational system is fine. Obviously, I have no first-hand experience with foreign systems. However, I do know about the education that I have received and believe it to be top notch. I think that the American educational system is much like the American economy. If you put in time and effort you get something in return. If you dont put in effort, then you dont get a good return. There is access to accelerated programming, extra-cirriculars, etc. One controls their own destiny. It is not like the Chinese system that forces students to memorize facts to score well on the college entrance exam.

Hope that works for you, Evo! :)

#### FrancisZ

I keep getting told by my parents how we grow up learning so much less than they have when they were growing up in the soviet union. Is our education really so inferior? I've attended top schools my entire life (until college) and I don't really think it's fair to say that I'm necessarily stupid.
In all fairness: subjects are constantly evolving beyond what anyone's parents were expected to know (and by "know" people often mean "memorize"--which isn't necessarily "intelligent" so much maybe as it is "knowledgeable"). These same persons who point out the deficiencies of others, are often incompetent in some other measurable ability. So maybe they should work on themselves instead of criticizing.

To start with: researchers, like Howard Gardner, say that there are in fact multiple intelligences...

http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm".

Beside that, there are nearly infinite competencies, to potentially acquire in life--probably as many as there are topics--ranging from tying one's shoes to say operating a nuclear reactor (*bows in respect to Astro*).

My main two questions are pretty much this:

Is our education really getting that worse over time?

"American" Education? As a professional teacher, I (very regrettably) can plainly tell you, that there's really no such thing. A lot (too much I would say) is left for the individual states to outline and implement; and in many instances, that merely amounts to a lot of self-regulation, number fudging, potential embezzlement, and other oodles of corruption. Absolutely disgusting. *Shakes head* I've seen it first hand.

Is American education really as bad as Michael Moore makes it seem? Or are we just being pushed in a sense to be even smarter?

I will say this: a lot has changed, even during my own life. My upbringing was kind of rocky to say the least. I went to public school in Brooklyn, NY; public in New Jersey; then back to public in Brooklyn; and then to parochial schools in New Jersey. I have also taught 6th-12th grade mathematics, in both states.

Frankly: there are definite INCONSISTENCIES between the curricula--even for a subject like mathematics, mind you--and yes, even between two states as physically close and symbiotic as New York and New Jersey are; and I know I've absolutely suffered in my own life, both as a student, and as a teacher because of this lack of continuity. In plainer terms: they just don't teach the same things (never mind the order in which you should actually teach things--which is an entire other disgrace, believe me).

Couple that with the fact, that there was a "movement" (which I liken to a bowel movement really) in more recent history, to throw out a lot of "older" yet still perfectly functional, and reliable methods in education.

Rote memorization, for example. Many of the students I've interacted with, during the course of the past 8 years, were NEVER TAUGHT THEIR MULTIPLICATION TABLES before they met me in either 6th grade, or 12th! And these were smart kids, mind you! Somehow, along their way through school, they simply were never encouraged to do that sort of thing.

And that has lead, in my own opinion at least, to a gravely serious, and in fact, distinctly generational domino effect (where at least mathematics is concerned).

Math is not like a History course (of course, of course :) ). Whereas, I can teach from say 1492 onward--and wouldn't necessarily need to know anything about Mesopotamia, Egyptians, or Roman culture--to understand math well, really requires instead a constant development of earlier and very contingent basic skills (again, like the times tables).

I tell my students the same thing all of the time: "if you don't know your multiplication tables, then you will have trouble with division; and if you struggle with division, you will probably dislike fractions; and if you cannot assimilate the notion, of fractions, decimals, and percentages, being different looking, albeit equivalent representations of the same quantity, then you will likely hate Percent Equations; and if you have difficulty with solving percent equations (which I use to introduce algebra), you will have an awful time with solving one-step Algebraic Equations; and then two-steps; and then Functions; and then graphing; and then Trigonometry; and then Calculus; and so forth, and so on; and that's why you end up hating math!"

Usually, at that point, I turn blue (which also makes them more bemused and alert to what I have to say, believe it or not).

So, short answer: yes, in a sense, we--adults who are supposed to be in charge, and setting a good example (the ultimate purpose of education, after all)--are doing stupid, stupid crap, all in the name of sheer laziness, and the bottom line: MONEY.

And that is exactly why students, who mysteriously pass their Regents Exam in New York State, cannot place out of Remedial or Intermediate Algebra, their freshman year of college. And then those, who are incredibly discouraged by this, eventually drop out. It's a terrible situation. Here's an article...

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/education/10remedial.html?_r=1"

It's a simple issue of QUALITY VERSUS QUANTITY. The school systems--especially in New York--are pushing incompetent product (namely the students) out the door into community colleges. It makes the schools appear to have done their job, while in fact not nearly having done so. And that's really part of State Department of Education's fault. Self-regulation is never a good idea.

Here's an idea though: why doesn't some genius--in ANY department of education--if they really care, try modifying their lousy goddamn curriculum to match the standards necessary for actual entrance, and long term, success in college? Why not instead of these bull crap state examinations, we actually prepare our kids for the SATs or ACTs? Isn't that the ideal: seeing as how those exams determine which college (if any), the students will eventually attend; and also, how much scholarship money they ultimately will be able to use, to help pay for cost of their college education?

Headlines and statistics keep indicating to me anyway, that we're "supposed to be moving past a manufacturing based economy." And so then, logically: if we do actually care about our children and their future capacity to support themselves (and us); perhaps we ought to be actually preparing them for white collar, engineering, or professional jobs.

The truth is (and this will sound cynical) that NO ONE IS REALLY IN CHARGE of Education, in this country; and I cannot help but sense, really, that that is exactly by design.

Did you ever notice, in any of the places that you may have worked in your own life, that some things just remain broken, for as long as you work there? It's because no one cares enough to take the time to actually understand and fix something that needs repair.

As I have always seen it: my job was fixing broken minds--of taking the time to assess the individual, their problems, and their weaknesses with my subject; and then to attempt to address those issues, case by case, for however long it friggin takes me. And I actually quit my job teaching, two weeks ago now--after nearly 8 years--because I finally realized exactly what I've been trying to say to all of you here, all along. The system just won't allow you, as an educator, to actually fix what's broken. Sometimes, in fact, when you try, you get punished for it.

The very best analogy I can offer you is this: it is the difference between working for a company like General Motor's, and a company like Toyota. At Toyota: each individual worker has the right to actually stop the line of production--for any reason--when they suspect there's a flaw; which is great for quality control (despite what anyone says about Toyota these days). But at GM: there's an equation, I'm sure somewhere, that plainly predicts x amount of cars produced in one day turns out y amount of profit, long term. And therein lies the major distinction. Again: Quality versus Quantity. "Just git'r done!"

People like this friggin guy can be funny--but they should never be your goddamn boss! Or, in charge of anything, outside of maybe a weekend barbecue.

Finally, I leave you with this thought in mind: maybe if we actually attempted to replicate what the other industrialized nations are doing in education (sort of their abuses and/or corruption), then we'd be able to compete academically.

But for right now: the state of so-called "American Education" is directly proportional to the state of old General Motors Corporation; which, as you probably know, went bankrupt 2 years ago. God help us.

No, you can be educated and not intelligent and vice versa.
Very true. And not to be political, but I would argue that Bush the younger was well educated, while not naturally intelligent (at least not in the verbal sense). He might have been highly intelligent kinesthetically. God bless Howard Gardner.

Considering half the population by definition has an IQ between 90 and 110, to say the middle class is at 110-130 is either the most elite middle class ever, or just number spewing. Only 23% of the population falls in the range you propose.

I am fond of this expression myself: "90% of all statistics quoted are made up on the spot."

Last edited by a moderator:

#### russ_watters

Mentor
I initially went to college with a bunch of ex-Soviets (mostly Armenians). I used to get a kick out of their claims of how superior their educational system was.
Interesting - I went to college with an ex-Soviet who gave talks about how people were brainwashed into believing in the USSR's superiority and that when they found out it wasn't true, their world came crashing-down around them. I wonder what causes such diametrically opposed views of the same situation. Perhaps...
Sure thing, guys, your nation just collapsed and is in such a third world state that you're flooding into mine.
....some realize the contradiction and some don't.

#### JDStupi

I would truly say that I do not know how to "reform" the education system, most likely because my views are based around the relation between "knowledge" and "knowing". For me, these two things are states-of-mind, the current education system is based around obtaining "knowledge"- static collections of fact, as opposed to "knowing" which is the state of mind of thinking about something and attempting to grasp it intuitively. True understanding lies in taking what you have learned and assmilating it into your schema, your overall thought process. This is not stressed, and I see it as a cultural problem. In our culture we are very much based around production, getting jobs and making more money--this is even how it is sold to us as children "Do those and you'll make more money" "you can't get a good job unless you do x" etc etc, so teachers may sometimes acknowledge the perceived drudgery of learning, but dangle the future rewards in front of the students in order to keep them going. The system that is based around static accumulation of fact is an efficient method of transmitting the relevant body of information necessary to keep our society operating smoothly, unfortunatley in my opinion the aim of education is to teach people how to think properly and reason for themselves, in order to become better people. If the aim of education is simply to keep things going, we seem to be doing fine, of course the problem is that the static collection is not very elastic, and when faced with a new historical or societal problem not anticipated in the past structuring of the system, things can take longer to re-orient themselves. This is not the case with a ystem based around intelligence and understanding, because it is the true creative understanding that breaks through and solves problems. Now, the quesiton is this: Is modern society coming to a turning point in the way international economies are interacting that may force us to re-evaluate how we transmit information? May we find that with new times, new demands and shifting global arena (globalization, etc) may we need to step up our "game" in order to be competitive? Next question being Will it make a difference in the long run or will we simply shift the guiding framework while still not stressing individual thought?

#### FrancisZ

I would truly say that I do not know how to "reform" the education system, most likely because my views are based around the relation between "knowledge" and "knowing". For me, these two things are states-of-mind, the current education system is based around obtaining "knowledge"- static collections of fact, as opposed to "knowing" which is the state of mind of thinking about something and attempting to grasp it intuitively.
You're saying that we need to encourage more analytical thinking, rather than simple memorize of facts. I agree. And honestly, the educational "community," if you will, has been trying to facilitate that end (to teach people to apply their collected knowledge to a unique situation).

The unfortunate thing, is that in recent history (approximately the last 15-20 years), they have moved away from rote memorization entirely; and that has been really detrimental.

I think the goal needs to be adapted. Rote memorization is necessary in early childhood education; say from Kindergarten to 4th or 5th grade. And then as the student grows older, you as their teacher--with that strong foundation--are able to develop their analytical sensibilities.

What I am saying, is that it's a lot harder to teach people to apply their knowledge to a unique set of circumstances, when they don't have a lot of basic concepts (e.g. multiplication) to begin with.

I've actually been told (more like told-off, in a sense) by a professor of junior college, that he had a student refer to his calculator, to determine 1 x 12! Needless to say: some where along the line, we failed. Had to have.

And that is the outcome of doing what someone above you, in administration, told you to do; rather than what your own gut knows--and what many generations before you, have known--is the right thing to do.

Now, the quesiton is this: Is modern society coming to a turning point, in the way international economies are interacting, that may force us to re-evaluate how we transmit information?
Yes, I think so. If you get into education yourself, as an occupation, you'll notice that schools are pushing "technology" a lot these days. And that's all well and good. However, I have to say: I absolutely despise administrators that, essentially, think they can throw computers at a problem. Years ago, they used to throw money at a problem; now they spend big bucks on "technology"--as if that were a magic word somehow--but don't actually address the more serious issue of limited space, desks, books, and faculty. It's so stupid--and you'd think that these people were educated enough themselves, not to be so blind. Frankly, it has to be on purpose, the stupid crap they do.

Students today, don't really need "typing class" anymore--they grew up with the internet. What they need is to learn acceptable styles of communication (both verbal, and textual). They need an etiquette class more than a technology class.

What they really ought to stress more than simple typing, in computer classrooms, is programming. Also, it would be nice, to teach them to have some respect for tradition too.

Let me tell you: there is nothing worse than a snot nose kid in 6th grade, that somehow has himself convinced that you're computer illiterate. Meanwhile, the same kid cannot form a coherent thought on paper--because he doesn't know how to write...with his hands! I feel like saying sometimes: "I was programming VCR's before you were a glimmer in your postman's eyes!"

But that would be rotten.

Still, once again: some idiot at the State Department of Education, felt it wasn't important that they actually learned how to write in script. I actually had a kid yell at me one for referring to a script lower case k, as exactly what it is. "What do you mean k--that's a letter R; as in, you're retarded Mr. Teacher!" :uhh: Apparently, he wasn't taught about script...ever.

And not to sound like an old-fogey either--I really don't like it when people say "what's the matter with these kids today?!"

Something else, that I have noticed though: is that the ability to read analog clocks has completely gone out the window; which is remarkably to me, seeing as how that's the only kind of clock you ever see in schools. I think it would be funny really, to install digital clocks in classrooms. It'd almost look like a count down to a detonation (maybe on the brain trust)!

But, I digress. What I think would really be nice, as far as technology is concerned, is just exactly like what you see on those Cisco ads (you know...with "Ellen" *says as if he knew who that was*)...

Next question being Will it make a difference in the long run or will we simply shift the guiding framework while still not stressing individual thought?
At risk of sounding like a political dissident: I think a little bit skepticism is always healthy. There has always been unnecessary indoctrination, in our schools (not just Germany's schools). When I was growing up, I remember reading a paragraph, on a standardized test, about the Ford Probe, of all things. That's certainly free advertising; and I believe, one could argue: a mild form of brainwashing also.

Doubt is good--it makes you a sincere intellectual.

Last edited by a moderator:

#### Chi Meson

Homework Helper
...
...

I am fond of this expression myself: "90% of all statistics quoted are made up on the spot."
That's not true. Only 67% of all statistics are made up on the spot!

By the way, it's good to see another HS teacher on the forums! So, Everybody:

What he said!
(Except, I'm not completely sold on Gardner)

I have time for one supporting comment re "technology in the classroom." School boards have been nuts over technology for two decades at least. The notion that every student gets a laptop has been a huge drain on resources. When $240,000 is spent on 250 laptops for about 2000 students, you have to ponder: that is the salary for 5 teachers for a year; the computers will be obsolete in 4 years; an IT professional must be hired, permanently, to keep those computers working; those computers will be used maybe 1/3 of the time during school. Good investment? you be the judge. Smart boards: I love my Promethean board. I couldn't wait to get it, but I had to. We got three, at first, for all 14 of the science teachers at my school. I said "gimme gimme, I'll start using it tomorrow.' They said, "No, we'll give it to the three Chemistry teachers, so that they all will start using it and learn together." (The fact that Pfizer gave the school money for them might have something to do with that decision.) So, three$6000+ boards stayed stuck to those teacher's whiteboards as they ignored them and worked around them, not bothering to learn how to use them. For nearly a full year. BUT we had TECHNOLOGY in the classroom. One teacher actually removed it from his whiteboard, and the Smartboard sat on the floor in the back of his lab.

Last edited:

#### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
I believe that education in the US or any nation is uneven, but the capabilities of people to learn is also uneven.

If I had stayed at my first high school, I would not have had the opportunities to take Calculus, two years of chemistry, or the level of physics, whic I did at the second high school. One of my classmates from the first high school described a rather poor experience in the only chemistry course that was taught. He said that the teacher did all the experiments, and the only time they touched equipment was to inventory the equipment at each station at the beginning and end of the year. In contrast, I took two years of chemistry and the students did all the experiments, including chemical synthesis, in conjunction with the classroom lessons on the theory. Toward the end of the 2nd year, we employed calculus (e.g., differential equations).

On the other hand, I spent my free time in the school library, the city library, and the libraries at a couple of local universities. I would read on various subjects, e.g., history, social sciences, as well as math, chemisty and physics - and I never could get enough. I learned many things outside of the classroom, which sometimes proved useful in writing papers, doing term projects or research, or arguing with teachers.

Had I lived in another city, town, state, or country, I may not have had the opportunities to do what I did. My education was partly due to the particular teachers, the particular school, but a lot has to do with my own initiative.

If one looks at the percentage of the population that holds MS or PhD in any particular discipline, one can see that the education is non-uniform. I see it locally, where what is available at an inner city high school is way less than the larger one in the suburbs. But even at the one in the suburbs, probably a few percent of students really excell to the point where they could be accepted to a top university.

### Physics Forums Values

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving