School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Supersize Me

Chester Finn recently returned from a trip to Singapore, and shared his takeaways of what we should learn, and not learn, from that country’s education system in Supersize my education? Not in Singapore.

Finn uses his trip as a springboard to discuss whether American students are receiving enough education, given that a “provocative” new study shows Americans students today are getting less education than their parents. Specifically, students born in 1980 will receive only eight months more education than their parents, a gap that has shrunk from a peak of two years more for kids (baby boomers) born in 1955.

Finn asks whether the answer to this problem lies in more school hours, or whether it’s a question of better and more relevant schooling:

But is more education – more hours and days, more years and degrees, — the cure for what ails us? Or are we already pigging out on the educational equivalent of fast food – fattening but not nutritious – and will supersizing our portions just make matters worse?

In examining this question, Finn looks in part to Singapore. According to Finn, Singapore has been going “a mile a minute in boosting both the quality and the quantity of formal education that its population receives.” The result: the percentage of Singaporeans completing the tenth grade jumped from 25 percent in 1980 to 96 percent in 2010. And Singaporean students score higher than practically every other developed nation on international assessments of science of math.

But, according to Finn, Singapore hasn’t achieved these dramatic gains by supersizing their education offerings (which he characterizes as a typical American response). For example, in Singapore, kindergarten is (still) optional – formal schooling doesn’t begin until age six or seven. About 25 percent of Singaporeans qualify for “junior college” (grades eleven and twelve). The government aims to place about 30 percent of its student in public universities; right now about 40 percent of high school graduates transition to career-oriented poly-technical institutes, which are similar to higher-end community colleges in the U.S. Another 20 percent attend technical schools that emphasize “hands-on” training. Bottom line according to Finn: even this seemingly-obsessed education nation does not advocate a “college-for-all” or “P through 20″ approach to learning for every student.

So while college costs in the U.S. continue to rise, saddling parents and students with mind-boggling levels of debt, Finn uses the success of Singapore to ask some tough questions – namely whether getting more of a mediocre product is really a good thing, and whether our resources might be better spent on improving the education our students actually receive, both in terms of content and relevance.  These are questions worth asking.

Beth T. Sigall

May 14, 2012

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