The genius of American education

Even if education isn't at the top of the list for Senators Obama or McCain during this election season, it remains a major concern for governors and CEOs. That's because they see a direct link between educational achievement and economic growth. And this spring, Education Next published research by Hoover Institution scholar Eric Hanushek and colleagues that illustrated this link. The analysts found that, in general, the higher a country scored on international tests of math and science, the faster its economy grew from 1960 to 2000.

Of course, there was one whopping exception: our very own U.S. of A. Hanushek et al write, "The United States has never done well on international assessments of student achievement. Instead, its level of cognitive skills is only about average among the developed countries. Yet the country's GDP growth rate has been higher than average over the past century. If cognitive skills are so important to economic growth, how can we explain the puzzling case of the U.S.?"

They answer their own question by pointing to factors in the larger economy: our relatively free labor markets, minimal regulation of industry, lower tax rates, etc. They also suspect that our historical lead in achieving universal public education, and our excellent system of higher education, might deserve some of the credit.

But there's one obvious entity they don't mention: today's K-12 schools. Isn't it possible that the American primary-secondary education system might be doing something right? While it's lousy at producing academic achievement, as measured by math and science tests, perhaps it's great at producing individuals with the skills, attitudes, and habits that drive the economy toward higher levels of growth.

That seems to be why so many countries send teams of educators to the U.S. to study our education system: they want to know how to produce the next Bill Gates or Sergey Brin, the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. But here's where most such visitors err: they tend to look inside our classrooms. They might be wiser to look at what's happening outside of them, for it might be our extra-curricular activities that represent the true genius of today's American education system, at least when it comes to fostering creativity, leadership, and the other "21st Century skills" that employers crave.

That's right: our athletic programs, student councils, debate clubs, school newspapers, orchestras, theater troupes, FFAs, and the rest of the panoply of after-school activities might be boosting America's economic output. While Asian kids are cramming at "exam cram schools" and European youngsters are smoking Gitanes in sidewalk cafés, our students are engaged in activities that give them the confidence to achieve in myriad ways--a taste of achievement they then carry into the world of work.

No, I can't prove it; our able research assistant searched and searched and couldn't find any studies examining this potential link. And not everybody buys it, not even among my Fordham colleagues. (See, for example, Checker Finn's piece below.) But the literature is full of evidence that students who participate in extra-curriculars tend to have stronger "social self-concept," more "cultural capital," loftier educational aspirations, diminished absenteeism, and greater college attendance. This is no secret; it's why elite colleges want to see extra-curricular activities on applicants' resumes--fueling an extra-curricular arms race in some elite high schools. (The research also indicates diminishing returns once students overload on activities, so a good rule is "everything in moderation.")

Absent conclusive research proof, let's rely on a little common sense. Try this thought experiment yourself. Think of the skills you use on a daily basis in your job. These may include setting goals and working toward them, collaborating with colleagues, speaking publicly, organizing your time effectively, designing and leading projects and project teams, listening to the concerns of others, competing against other organizations, and juggling multiple duties. Now ponder: back in high school, did you get to practice these skills more often during class time or during extra-curricular activities? I strongly suspect it was the latter.

That's not to say that the formal curriculum holds no value. Of course it does. If your job requires you to write well, thank your English teacher. And of course our schools aim to do more than produce economic powerhouses; we study history and civics because we want to enrich our democracy, not because it will help us out-compete the EU and the Asian tigers.

But it does suggest that our culture of extra-curricular activities--a culture that transcends schools (think Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, church youth groups, etc.)--might be a precious resource deserving of support. Yet this particular resource is increasingly under attack from several directions.

First, in times of budget crunch, school boards are tempted to consider extra-curriculars as, well, extras, frills even. Such activities are often the first to go. And with the baby-boomers about to retire and put a huge squeeze on public resources, and with the proportion of American households with school-age children down to 25 percent, any rational forecaster would say that tougher financial times are ahead for our schools, at least in the long term. That could spell disaster for extra-curriculars.

But they are also under attack from some reformers. Consider the "small schools" movement, which might have its virtues but which results in tiny schools that can't support many, if any, extra-curriculars. (Granted, some find ways to make it work, like the KIPP charter school in the Bronx that boasts a world-class orchestra program in which every pupil participates.) Or contemplate the "dual enrollment" movement, which encourages high school kids to spend time on college campuses. Again, there are good reasons to support this, but it likely draws teenagers away from sports, theater, orchestra, etc. We should consider whether the trade-offs are worth it.

Perhaps the greatest threat comes from online learning. Clay Christensen predicts that half of all high school courses will soon be taken virtually. He's probably right, because it's much more efficient and less frustrating to impart knowledge individually to students via the Web than via a traditional classroom. But what if more and more teenagers stay home all day and learn via computer, and skip the sports and clubs and all the rest? Academic achievement might go up while the proportion of students with "people skills" goes down. (Here's a suggestion: architects designing high schools of the future should skip the classrooms but keep the gym, the auditorium, and other common spaces. In other words, forget the "school" and build a "community center" instead. Kids could learn academics at home and come to the center for all the rest.)

So the next time that foreigners come to investigate what accounts for America's economic success, don't show them the extra-curriculars. They're our secret weapons; we might want to keep it that way!

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