How and Why?

Thomas Friedman’s most recent column, on the state of education in the United States, is simultaneously true and another tiresome example of his bad habit of disparaging the United States in favor of one Asian country or another. In this case, it’s South Korea:

“In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

“I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child?” Duncan continued. “If your answer is no … then your work is cut out for you. Because right now, South Korea — and quite a few other countries — are offering students more, and demanding more, than many American districts and schools do. And the results are showing, in our kids’ learning and in their opportunities to succeed, and in staggeringly large achievement gaps in this country. Doing something about our underperformance will mean raising your voice — and encouraging parents who aren’t as engaged as you to speak up. Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home. Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders — and to ask more of their kids.”

His underlying point is that there’s nothing wrong with the U. S. educational system that better students wouldn’t cure. That’s probably true. It’s notable that in any given year there are three quarters of a million international students studying at American institutions of higher learning of whom about 80,000 are South Koreans. My guess is that South Koreans studying in the U. S. outnumber American students studying in South Korea by about 10 to 1. That’s what hegemony means.

There are two questions I would ask Mr. Friedman: why and how? The problem to which he draws attention, American students’ disinterest in education, is not one that can be addressed by spending more money. In real terms we spend about three times as much now on education as we did twenty years ago. There is little evidence that we’re getting more from all that money and considerable evidence that our educational system has reached the point at which it is capable of sucking up every resource we could conceivably throw at it without producing more in the way of actual measurable outputs.

I suspect that the disinterest he reports on the part of American students is real and it’s the product of a combination of litigiousness and the presumption of parental control of children. Gone are the days of in loco parentis. Today too many students do not succeed or fail based on their own efforts but are guaranteed “success” by a system that passes students through it without their gaining a noticeable education.

Although the problems of which Mr. Friedman takes note may be characteristic of our educational system, they aren’t unique to it. The other evening my wife and I had dinner with some college chums of mine and their wives. One of them, who’s worked for many years for a large insurance company, mentioned that his company gives a workshop to managers on dealing with Millennials. The gist is that many of the young folks coming up have out-sized estimates of their own worth, expect to be compensated without performance, and are incapable of working or unwilling to work without close supervision.

Welcome to the new age, to the new age.

28 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    “The gist is that many of the young folks coming up have out-sized estimates of their own worth, expect to be compensated without performance”

    For a minute I thought you were talking about Tom Friedman….

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think South Korean parents complain about the schools because they have to spend all of their money on tutors, so their kids will have “opportunity” come test-time. The kids sleep in school with special pillows made for desktops to be fresh for learning after school.

    “In 2010, 74% of all students engaged in some kind of private after-school instruction, sometimes called shadow education, at an average cost of $2,600 per student for the year. There are more private instructors in South Korea than there are schoolteachers, and the most popular of them make millions of dollars a year from
    online and in-person classes.

    . . .

    “But the country’s leaders worry that unless its rigid, hierarchical system starts to nurture more innovation, economic growth will stall — and fertility rates will continue to decline as families feel the pressure of paying for all that tutoring. “You Americans see a bright side of the Korean system,” Education Minister Lee Ju-ho tells me, “but Koreans are not happy with it.”

    South Korea: Kids, Stop Studying So Hard!

    South Korea, number one in suicide under 40 class.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    I suspect that to Freidman and his ilk, suicides are a net benefit of the system.

  • michael reynolds Link

    This is weary old b.s. from Friedman. The differences in performance between US schools and Korean schools disappear as soon as you control for poverty. Our middle class kids do just as well as their middle class kids and ours don’t kill themselves nearly as often. Our schools are fine. We have poor kids, minority kids, immigrant kids and we’re still within reach of this hard-driving middle-class monoculture. The schools aren’t failing, the society is.

    And boy am I sick of hearing old farts diss high school kids. My kid outworks what I did in HS by probably a factor of ten. We’re beating the hell out of our kids because we’ve got it into our heads that we’re falling behind. We are not falling behind. But because it’s a lot of fun apparently to attack teachers we’re now ruining kid’s lives.

  • Red Barchetta Link

    Oh, c’mon, guys. He’s right up there with Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy……….

  • jan Link

    “The schools aren’t failing, the society is.”

    I think it’s a mixture of both the schools and society under-performing.

    Schools may be advancing in their technology, but teaching methods remain archaic and , in many cases, simply boring, as they strain to do what government-run organizations do best — structure programs for a one-size-fits-all populace, with one POV being the headliner. This is because much of public education revolves around a curriculum created to ingest politically/socially correct information, rather than encouraging a well-rounded, creative appraisal of subject matter and issues, which then prods the mind into a critical thinking approach, rather than a knee-jerk, ‘appropriate’ one.

    I was talking to a woman from the UK yesterday, schooled at USC, and now working as a mentor for underprivileged children, as well as an English tutor for immigrant students. Her assessment of education in this country made Friedman’s seem positive. She said that most BA students came away with a “remedial” education. And, in her outspoken opinion, the best schools for higher education were in Europe, not here. She was a wealth of unharnessed criticism for our academic delivery, which she claims has been subtly muting intuitive intelligence since the 60’s, creating a more malleable, manageable society — one more apt to fit in with a given agenda than find fault with it and intellectually oppose it.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I don’t think political correctness has a single damned thing to do with anything. It’s just a right-wing talking point used for the purpose of attacking teacher’s unions. My son is in a public high school in Marin Freaking County and there’s been absolutely nothing of the sort that in any way has any impact on academics.

    And the academics are excellent. The school environment is excellent. The campus is fine. And this is just about as liberal an enclave as you can find. It gets 10 out of 10 on

    What sets it apart is probably that the entire student body is well-off. Surprise! Public education works pretty well when you start with a bunch of smart kids with smart, involved parents and tons of money.


    It’s not about unions, not political correctness, not about lazy Americans, not any of that baloney. The problem with American schools is not a problem with American schools, it’s a problem with poverty.

    The real problem within the schools per se is that we have a testing obsession that eats the heart out of education and ramps up utterly pointless pressures on kids. Kids are taking performance-enhancing drugs (Adderall) to deal with the workload. A workload that has little to do with education and a lot to do with satisfying idiot parents trying to shoehorn their average kid into Harvard, and of course a defense-of-real-estate-prices battle to keep rankings high.

  • TastyBits Link

    New Orleans schools are all charter schools. I have not kept up on it, but it is my understanding that there are mixed results. They are all college prep. Nobody wants to support a vocational charter school. I think the college graduation rates are so-so.

    I am not aware of any studies. It has been since Katrina, and there should have been enough time to show results.

  • michael reynolds Link

    And your UK friend is nuts.

  • Just as a little evidence to take into consideration, the percentage of international students at Stanford University is about 10% and at MIT almost a third. At the Chicago Community Colleges the percentage is about 1%.

    Without going through the entire roster, I would suggest that most international students here in the states are elite students attending elite schools.

  • ... Link

    jan, a lot of education IS boring. There is no way around that. Memorizing pretty much anything is repetitive, and thus becomes boring. Practice is repetition, and thus becomes boring. That hasn’t changed and won’t change.

    The problem with American schools is not a problem with American schools, it’s a problem with poverty.

    Talk about political talking points being used to change the subject…. This is just more liberal bullshit to be used to argue for jacking up taxes on (what remains of) the middle class while creating an ever larger and more powerful government.

    For years I have said that if you want to improve the schools you need to improve the students. Poverty isn’t what makes people think that punching each other in the head is a good use of one’s time. Stupidity does. And the police are out in my neighborhood several days a week breaking up large mobs of kids just randomly punching each other in the head. Do I need to mention that the schools in the immediate vicinity aren’t turning out students for the Ivy League? (These punches are going to add up for the ones that have more than one functioning brain cell, too.) These kids are simply stupid. Adopt them out when they’re newborns to all the fine families you want, they’re still going to have sub 80 IQs when all is said and done.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Reihan Salam had an interesting question a few weeks ago related to South Korea. If South Korean parents spend an inordinate amount of time and money improving their children’s math and reading scores after the school bell rings, and affluent Americans invest in their child’s after-school time in improving their social skills (sports teams, music, drama, dance . . .), what does that tell us?

    It could tell us that affluent parents are wrong. It could tell us that American parents with the resources see greater marginal advantage to their children from enhancing their social skills.

    What would America be like if everybody deserved an A+ in calculus? (Aside from the probability that we would need to invent the A++)

  • Let me answer your last question first, PD. Offhand I’d say that no more than 10% of Americans have the mathematical maturity to “deserve an A+ in calculus”. That would need to be integrated with a better understanding of child development than we have now. It’s the extremely rare six year old who “deserves, etc.”. How about twelve year olds? I don’t think that anybody knows.

    Even with that most Americans would never “deserve, etc.”. It would be a Procrustean bed. You’d either need to abandon the goal or reduce the number of Americans to fit.

    Now, as to your first question, I think the premise is questionable. Mostly, elite schools are elite schools because elite students attend them. Graduating from an elite school is a signal that you’re elite and some elite schools, e.g. Harvard, work very hard at seeing to it that those who graduate stay elite.

    However, most schools aren’t elite schools, can’t be made into elite schools, and even if they were the meaning of “elite school” would change to remain out of reach for those of us who aren’t elite.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Dave, I don’t think we’re talking “elite” schools. Salam did use the term “affluent,” but what I think he was getting at are people w/ resources. People who have money to spend on their kids’ enrichment in the U.S. are spending it socially, not academically. I don’t think of this as an elite schools function; its more of a soccer mom thing. My kids are involved all of the examples I gave, (including $15 per week guitar lessons), and I run into a lot of parents describing all of the activities, how exhausting it can be, and how they think soccer makes their kids better people.

  • PD Shaw Link

    This is the Reihan Salam (Note: I don’t agree w/ the initial claim about poverty not impacting U.S. test scores in comparisons with other countries. I don’t think one can compare socio-economic status btw/ countries that way)

    An alternative explanation given in the comments is that American parents invest in trivial skills to impress college boards. There may be some of that, particularly parents like to hold open the idea of a sports scholarship, but mostly that commentor is talking about elite schools.

  • This spreadsheet might be entertaining. Note that the operating expenses per pupil within Cook County vary by more than 100%. When parents in New Trier Township pay out of pocket for “enrichment” consisting of soccer, ballet lessons, etc., that’s on top of the additional $10K per year being spent on their kids out of tax dollars.

    There’s no way that Chicago 299 could match that kind of spending.

  • Jimbino Link

    Why do relatively few Amerikans study overseas?

    1. They will never satisfy the math and science requirements to get in to a good school.
    2. They speak no foreign language and English worse than the typical German or Estonian.
    3. They have been raised by helicopter parents and driven to soccer matches in SUVs to maintain their innocence.

    If I had a kid, first thing I’d do is take him (or send him off) to, god knows, Germany, France or Italy or even Argentina to study. If he spent the whole time doing nothing but pub eating and drinking he’d return to the USSA fluent in one or more foreign languages and speaking better English than his peers, all the time having gained a priceless education in history, geography, world culture, food, drink and sex than he’d ever get in Amerika.

    I taught physics in a German boarding school where the 19-year-old students all emerged tri-lingual and with 5 years of physics and 5 years of math under their belts. And after having enjoyed great skiing and mountain excursion, fine food, great beer, wide travel, nude beaches and sex.

  • steve Link

    I like talking with the South Korean students at my son’s school. I have met a number of the parents. The kids impression of their system is not especially positive. Everything centers around “The Test”. If you do well, then you are expected to go to the top business school. It is fairly rigid. You can study or not study in college (they drink a lot I am told), since your place in life has largely been determined by the big test. A number of the kids here have told me that they came here so they could study what they wanted, or because it would be more serious. (If you really want to have fun you get them going on foreign policy discussions.)

    This is also very interesting as I am having some trouble when I hire Asians out of residency. Very high test scores are not correlating with job performance. I cant tell if they are able to work in real time, or if they have been successful by dint of many extra hours put in. Being willing to work for 2 hours to solve a problem that needs solved in 10 minutes isnt very useful sometimes.

    PD- With the professional services available, and the ability to take the SATs many times, there is an abundance of kids with great GPAs and test scores. If you want to get into the elite schools you do those exotic things. Remember the Ron Unz paper. Building huts in Thailand gets you into Harvard. A part-time job or working on 4-H projects does not.


  • PD Shaw Link

    @dave, its true that some people with more disposable income will vote themselves more education spending through property taxes. I suspect there is a lot of waste involved in that, however. At best it is spending to draw families to a community with like values, with the hopes of a socialization effect.

    Koreans spend a lot of extracurricular time and money on academic tutors because they are dissatisfied with the slumber schools, but are stuck in a society where the opportunities are limited by “the Test.”

    In America the situation is nearly the opposite. The Test(s) most people complain about are not determinative of anything about the child’s future. Teaching to the (No Child Left Behind) test is a complaint about the narrowness of the education vision, including its disconnect from economic realities in the U.S. Even if 10% of the population could excel at Calculus, its not at all clear that the jobs are there to reward a single-minded pursuit of that goal.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @steve, I suspect the quest to satisfy the “novelty” desires of elite schools is not worth the effort, particularly for whites without connections. The “novelty” will change as the unexpected becomes the expected; my closest cousin (a few days older than me) was building huts in Southeast Asia when it wasn’t cool to anybody except herself. And I doubt she would want to spend any time near Cambridge; I think that was always rather the point.

  • @dave, its true that some people with more disposable income will vote themselves more education spending through property taxes.

    It’s not just “vote themselves more education spending”. The median family income in Chicago is $38,000. The median income in Kenilworth is $250,000. Given the circumstances in Illinois where the state contribution to education is just about the lowest in the nation local incomes are of critical importance.

  • Jimbino Link

    Right, Dave Schuler,

    My parents wisely moved us out of the South Side, where I would have had to attend John Marshal Harlen (we called it Harlem) of the Ghetto, in 1958, to York High School in Elmhurst. York had no Jews, no Asians, no Latinos and no Blacks. Few Roman Catholics, too, since there was a very good RC high school nearby.

    It was the best thing my parents ever did for us. York was full of great teachers (such as my mother). My graduating class had 14 National Merit Finalists. If we’d had an alternative to public mis-education there on the South Side, god knows, we might have stayed. Public education guarantees the worst of all worlds.

  • jan Link

    The Humanities and Us.

    An example of the politically correct road that education has now decided to travel.

    Yet the UCLA English department—like so many others—is more concerned that its students encounter race, gender, and disability studies than that they plunge headlong into the overflowing riches of actual English literature—whether Milton, Wordsworth, Thackeray, George Eliot, or dozens of other great artists closer to our own day. How is this possible? The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin. Course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity. UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.

  • michael reynolds Link


    That’s just some old fart making a case for choosing older literature. It’s just an old fart’s rant, not evidence of anything at all. UCLA has a lot of course choices because it’s an enormous school. Nothing to do with high school at all.

    As far as I know, no one here but me is actually involved with a public high school or has kids in same. What we’re getting is a lot of cranky old man ‘back in my day’ bullshit.’ You’re all about 10 years behind the now-understood truth, which is that the problem insofar as it exists, is poverty.

    If it were not poverty but “the system” then our middle class kids would not equal South Korean middle class kids, which they do. Right?

    Simple test right there. If our middle class kids perform as well as their middle class kids, then it ain’t about the system or PC or unions. Duh.

    My son sees a shrink for OCD. (Well controlled now.) The shrink sees a whole lot of Redwood High students since he’s located near the campus. From his perspective dealing with actual living kids, he wishes parents would back off on the pressure. He thinks what we’re doing is a very bad thing. I agree. Lots of parents agree. Meanwhile, you people are talking politics and (dated or irrelevant) numbers and regurgitating ancient Republican talking points, and meanwhile, out here in the real world, kids are eating Adderall by the handful so they can survive the performance pressure being heaped on by their parents.

    You know, there are actual human beings suffering because people like most of you up-thread insist on scoring political points on the backs of children. You make children – my children, my actual living human children – pawns in a fucking political game when you don’t have the slightest goddamn idea what you’re talking about.

  • That’s just some old fart making a case for choosing older literature.

    I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Milton and Shakespeare are highly likely to be of lasting value, if only for understanding our culture. I strongly suspect that they will continue to be read in 50 years by other than specialists. Is there anything that’s been written in the last 10 years that will be read in 50 years by anything other than specialists?

    George Eliot, maybe not so much. Not all 19th century English writers are of lasting value.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The major universities tend to be geared towards novelty
    obscurism in literature and history, since they see their business as original publishing. Its not likely that one can publish anything terribly original about Shakespeare, unless its through the lens of something like queer theory.

    I read Ward-Perkins’ _The Fall of Rome_ and he makes a similar lament about the loss of interest in the subject of the Roman Empire as the most important topic of late antiquity. He is sympathetic to the desire of the younger historians to explore topics such as gender roles or unconventional religious sects that have historically been under-served, but the specifics have tended to reshape the general. The book is an essay to re-establish the point that the Empire Fell, and that it was a horrible experience for many people, with dramatic long-term consequences.

  • Michael, what do you see as the solution? Think particularly about Chicago.

    In Chicago there is a bipartisan consensus that the problems of Chicago’s schools can’t be ameliorated within the constraints of the present public schools. That’s not my position. But it is the consensus position.

    Chicago is just about tapped out from a revenue standpoint. We already have the highest sales tax in the nation, the city has reached the statutory limit in property tax increases, and it doesn’t have the power to impose an income tax. That’s why the city is depending so heavily on an increase in revenue from fees. We need to come up with a $1 billion down payment on public pensions this year and nobody knows where we’re going to get it.

    We can’t expect any relief from the state. Illinois is dead last in the contribution to the schools from the state. Both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion are held by Democrats who’ve shown no interest in increasing the state’s share. Increasing tax rates haven’t resulted in proportional increases in revenue but they have driven businesses out of the state.

    We’re also unlikely to receive any help from the federal government. Illinois gets 50 cents in federal spending back for every dollar in taxes paid by the state’s residents. I hear nearly continuous complaints from New Yorkers (75 cents on the dollar) and Californians (87 cents on the dollar) on how abused they are. I think Illinois’s position as cash cow is likely to continue because we have the worst Congressional delegation in the country.

    I’m not disagreeing that wealthy districts do better than poor ones. I think that’s obvious. I’m looking for a solution for the poor districts. Saying “spend more money” is all well and good but where is all that money supposed to come from?

    Additionally, as I’ve mentioned before the amount we spend on education in the U. S. has tripled in real terms over the last twenty years without much in the way of improvement. I’m skeptical that increasing the number of administrators by an order of magnitude will help our educational system much but that’s been the trend for decades.

  • TastyBits Link

    @PD Shaw

    Often forgotten is that there was a Roman Republic, and this devolved into the Empire.

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