American students: “Where’s New York?”

Now that we’ve dabbled in the topic of teachers, it may also be useful to direct some attention towards curricula. Here are the questions we think should be asked in evaluating the quality of what is being taught at American primary schools, colleges, and universities.

Are students in our education system acquiring valuable, relevant, actionable skills?

For too many people, especially those in higher education, instruction yields very little in the way of a useful skill set that can be applied towards a real job. Employers often quip that their entry-level employees are woefully incompetent at actually doing things – a result of four years of learning abstractions rather than skills.

Are they receiving complete, factual information about the world?

Studies expose major gaps in what US students are taught. Geography is one of the most glaring examples: despite constant news coverage since 2003, a 2006 survey revealed that 63% of Americans aged 18-24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the world. Even worse, a more recent study showed that 50% of young Americans couldn’t even identify the state of New York on a map of the US!

Are they being challenged to think critically and develop ideas?

Although American schools are better at encouraging critical thinking and creativity than some of their counterparts around the world, the overall picture remains bleak. Too often, merely following directions is encouraged while reasonable questioning is discouraged. Getting good grades on multiple choice tests is rewarded, while learning profoundly and thoroughly is not. Following a formula is lauded, but explaining a formula, or questioning one, is ignored.

Are they being taught how to effectively use technology and be players in the modern economy?

Even today, most curricula in US schools do not include incorporating or learning about technology that is vital to becoming a productive player in the global economy. Aside from those specialized in technological fields, most American students’ computer knowledge is a result of personal initiative rather than a systematic approach in education.

Visit us on Sunday for an analysis of what factors may be responsible for America’s curricular woes.

Teacher evaluation and moral hazard

Following New York’s recent release of teacher rankings, the chatter in the education community has once again focused upon an old question: is it wise to evaluate teachers based on student performance on standardized tests?

For us, the answer seems quite obvious. No!

Simplistic political demagoguery aside, teacher accountability is actually a complex issue. Children in different areas and of different backgrounds are subject to different circumstances, capabilities, and opportunities. Mandating one-size-fits-all standards to an endlessly diverse body of students and educators is great at making politicians seem tough, but very bad at improving the quality of education.

The entrenched standardized evaluation system also creates the phenomenon of “teaching to the test” – that is, educators focusing all their efforts on ensuring that students are able to answer formulaic test questions rather than learn in a meaningful and permanent way. The incentives created by standardized testing are all wrong: teaching students how to fill in circles with a number 2 pencil is rewarded (a la Monday’s comic), while showing them how to think critically, be creative, and learn with real depth is discouraged. This is, by the way, to say nothing of the rampant teacher cheating that the system invites.

Sadly, the stories of the machine’s latest victims – New York City’s teachers and students – seem unlikely to meaningfully diminish the bureaucrats’ heavy-handed influence on education.

The fact that local school boards and the DOE continue to defend rigid educator evaluation based on standardized testing shows that today’s educational bureaucracies are totally out of touch with reality (at best).

For years, it has been plainly obvious that standardized tests are a dreadfully inadequate way of measuring how much students have actually learned. It should follow, then, that using them to measure teacher performance is downright stupid.

Why on earth are we still doing this?

Why is higher education so expensive?

So, you want to go to college. I don’t blame you: college is basically four years of fun (with a side of class for about three hours a day), and when you’re done, you get a big, lavishly framed, magical piece of paper that helps you make money. It’s like there are no downsides!

Well, actually, there is one. The average cost of a college education in the United States is currently about $140,000 for a private institution and $56,000 for a public one. This is quite a hefty price tag for a four year party and a piece of paper – and that’s before you pile on a generous smattering of extra tens of thousands for room, board, and books. Given that the median American household earns just under $45,000 per year, these numbers are very perplexing.

When I talk to people who attended college 40 or 50 years ago, I notice a common theme: many were able to pay for it themselves with part-time side jobs, like working at a restaurant or delivering newspapers. In 2012, the income from such employment would barely be enough to buy books for the semester, let alone cover tuition. The vast majority of today’s students are unable to pay for any kind of college education without sinking into the abyssal chasm of student loan debt.

What changed? Somehow, I doubt that part-time waiters in the old days got the 2012 equivalent of $30,000 a year. The culprit must be tuition.

Why is education so expensive, and how can technology help bring that cost down? This week we’ll be discussing this topic in depth and attempting to find some answers. Stay tuned, Rukuku readers!


In the previous installment, I discussed a selection of hurdles faced by the education world in the viability, effectiveness and adoption of new technologies. Here at Rukuku, though, we’re optimists. To us, that doesn’t mean crossing our fingers and hoping everything turns out okay. Instead, we recognize that for every problem, there exists an array of intelligent, creative, and occasionally, downright awesome solutions. As it pertains to tech and learning, a few examples follow. Some are uncontroversial, others are mutually exclusive, and many are subject to lively, opinionated discussion based on one’s political or social viewpoint.

Policy solutions. In our political discourse, the primary rhetorical tools have recently become beating each other over the head with vapid talking points and just generally yelling at everything. That is quite unfortunate, because there is a serious, level-headed discussion to be had on the subject of technology and our (failing) education system. A sober discussion on the topic might go something like this. Those favoring robust federal involvement in our schools and universities may say that more funding is needed, technology should be introduced into resistant systems with incentives and pressure, the system should be made more efficient and equitable (perhaps through subsidies for disadvantaged students and locales), and accountability should be increased. Deficit hawks and decentralists might retort that the right solutions are to give localities and institutions more leeway, stop constraining them with one-size-fits-all federal standards, and diminish what they believe to be the entrenched, change-resistant behemoth of an educational bureaucracy that we have created over the last couple of decades.

Natural market processes and innovation. Whatever your views on policy happen to be, anyone who has taken an introductory Economics class probably knows that peaceful, lawful competition among innovative producers results in ever-improving products and services at ever-lower prices. If you are a child of the era when the personal computer was an exorbitantly expensive, fantastically slow, nauseatingly beige, boxy monstrosity, you know this very well. The computers of today are enormously better, faster, and more functional than their counterparts of ten or 15 years ago. Despite that, the average price of personal computer equipment fell an astounding ninety percent between 1998 and 2009. The introduction of the tech revolution into education will be no different. In the last post, we placed special emphasis on socioeconomic factors causing disparities in the quality of learning. To be sure, this problem exists, and is serious. But in the face of the unrelenting innovation machine, it’s also temporary. Technologies are very rapidly becoming more accessible and more equitable for people of all backgrounds. If the demand exists (and it sure does), the innovators will always respond. To end with a small but shameless plug: Rukuku strives to be among those innovators.

There are so many reasons to look forward to solving the educational problems of the modern age.

Who’s aboard?

Source for stats.