We're holding back standout students
The Kansas City Star
Education matters not only to individuals who can find highly paid jobs, but to the nation as a whole. President Barack Obama directly links education to global competition, saying, “the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
During the 2012 campaign, both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney promised to reform our education system, with emphasis on the right to choose schools, either through vouchers or the creation of more charter schools.
The assumption is that students will perform well if they are in a good school and under good teachers. And if they fail, of course, blame the teachers and the school system. That’s why they attempt to fix the problem by fixing the teachers.
This assumption is not entirely true. If you look at charter schools for disadvantaged children, on average, they don’t perform any better than public schools. Mostly because the students are not motivated to learn even if the teachers are motivated to teach.
There are two major problems with our current policies. The first is they all emphasize the role of teachers instead of the active performers — the students. Current policy fails to demand accountability from students by telling them they are the masters of their destiny, success or failure, that it is time we quit blaming others.
The second problem is they all ignore the right side of the bell curve, which is what a nation needs to out-compete other nations.
The normal distribution of a school’s performance should be in the shape of a bell with the majority clustering around the mean and a small number of outliers symmetrically on both sides of the mean.
Be it the No Child Left Behind Act or the Race To The Top initiative, most government interventions have attempted to address students who trail behind. They use students’ test scores to evaluate and motivate teachers. They have ignored the needs of the other side of the curve — the high performers.
By ignoring high performers at school, we practically tell these kids: “You are already good enough. You don’t need to work hard. Just sit and wait for the rest of the class.”
Thus, these kids no longer feel motivated to put in more effort. By ignoring them, we also run the risk of losing the opportunity to identify and cultivate at an early age future science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, majors to compete with other nations.
Currently there are many forms of schools — public, charter, magnet, private, college prep, and selective “exam” schools, which students must test to get into. But exam schools, the only academically selective public ones, make up only a tiny fraction. Exam schools differ from others not only in their required entrance exam but also in the fact that students are motivated to work hard to get in.
On the other hand, the Chinese school system consists of mainly two types of schools: normal schools and exam schools. Children begin competing for spots in a few selective schools as early as the elementary grades. Those who choose not to compete can opt for normal middle and high schools.
The belief is that exams are the number one equalizer for all children. So the competition for selective schools begins very early. Competition is a big motivating factor. While this seems much too cutthroat, our own system of waiting until high school to start competing for top colleges has not been serving us well.
To best serve our high achievers and to out-compete other nations, our students should be given more opportunities to compete and receive quality education in places where they find kindred spirits, where being nerdy is encouraged and appreciated, and where learning is cool.
Yanwen Xia of Overland Park grew up in China and worked as a reporter at China Daily. She has taught in colleges and now works in research at University of Kansas Hospital/Kansas City Cancer Center. To reach her, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108.