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Why American Education Fails
And How Lessons From Abroad Could Improve It
JAL MEHTA is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent book is The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling (Oxford University Press, 2013), from which this essay is adapted. Copyright ©Oxford University Press.See more by this author
In his landmark 1973 book, The Coming of Post-industrial Society, the sociologist Daniel Bell heralded the United States' transition from a labor-intensive economy that produced goods to a knowledge-based one geared toward providing services. No longer could success be achieved through manual, assembly-line work; it would require advanced skills and creativity. At least since then, American politicians and pundits have regularly stressed that education holds the key to the country's future. Everyone seems to agree that good schools are prerequisites for broad economic prosperity, individual social mobility, and a healthy civil society in which informed voters engage in the public issues of the day.
Although no one disputes the value of education, how the country should improve it is fiercely contested. Every few years, along comes a new idea to save American schools, be it enforcing standards, opening charter schools, providing vouchers for private education, or paying teachers based on their performance. Most recently, two federal programs have sought to remake the U.S. education system: No Child Left Behind, a 2001 law that sought to use standards and accountability to push all students to proficiency by 2014, and Race to the Top, an Obama administration initiative that has tried to incentivize change by offering competitive grants to states pursuing reform agendas. All this activity has generated progress in some areas, but it has not led to widespread improvement. U.S. schools still languish in the middle of international rankings, behind the schools of such countries as Estonia and Slovenia. And half a century after the end of official segregation, huge gaps continue to divide students by race and class, with the average black 12th grader scoring in reading at a level equivalent to the average white eighth grader on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most trusted long-term yardstick of U.S. school performance.