September 6, 2006

US Higher Education

Duke President Richard Broadhead had an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post Monday. He cited a report by the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education that is typical of the sentiment expressed about American education:

...while America's colleges and universities have "been the envy of the world for many years," they are no longer training the educated workforce needed to win in a global economy. In its unkindest cut, the report suggested that U.S. higher education may be -- dread phrase! -- a "mature enterprise": risk-averse, self-satisfied, self-indulgently expensive, oblivious to smarter rivals overtaking us.
I actually went over the statistics in this report, many of which were wrong. For example, the report said the US ranks 9th in attainment of Higher Education. In fact, the US is far and away #1, unless you restrict the age group for which you measure educational attainment. Then all of Europe jumps ahead of us. The problem though, is that the US system of higher education's main strength is its heterogeneous plate of offerings. Among those dynamics is the huge market for adults who re-enter education. The rest of the world has nothing like this. (Usually I'd like all the sources here, but many are on websites behind many layers of subscriptions. All the information is on my computer though, so if you really want them send me an email.)But if that doesn't convince you to have some confidence in the US Higher Education system, then Broadhead's probably will:
I also encountered another widespread worry, most loudly voiced in China. This is the fear that Asian higher education is long on discipline but short on creativity and that the very strengths of their system may prevent the fostering of a versatile, innovative style of intelligence that will be the key to future economic advancement.Here was the paradox: The things that Americans tend to look to as Asia's overwhelming educational strengths -- a deeply ingrained work ethic and disciplined training in the elements of knowledge -- are linked in Asian minds with secret weakness. They, too, look to higher education to create the mysterious ingredient that will guarantee success for their society. But they worry that we, not they, have the secret advantage.
From this, Broadhead has some very sound policy prescriptions:
I don't think that we're wrong to worry about our system. If we want to train smarter people and tap into more talent in our population, we do need to look to the deficiencies in American education and candidly and courageously address them. This will inevitably mean improving in areas where Asia is strong: building stronger foundational skills in early grades, making sure more students persist in so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), supplying more good math and science teachers, and other steps.But making ourselves over in the image of an imagined rival won't be the formula for success. Even as we correct real deficiencies, we need to recognize and nurture the strengths that are so evident to others.In particular, we need to promote everything in our system that breeds initiative, independence, resourcefulness and collaboration. One of these is the liberal arts model of education. The schooling that trains students in many different disciplines makes them more flexible at shifting among a range of challenges and approaches. It also equips them to bring different sets of tools to bear on complex problems, allowing them to improvise new solutions by making new connections.At an even more basic level, we must build on a system whose founding values are very different from respect for authority. When we touch off real debate on serious, open questions and encourage students to have worthwhile thoughts of their own, we are developing an asset of the highest strategic as well as personal value: the habits of active, independent thought.There is no shortcut solution for the problem of education. The country that will do the best is not the one that will find the magic fix. Rather, it will be the one that asks, in the deepest way, what education is for and what human traits it is meant to foster. [Emphasis added]
Here, here. (Via OxBlog)