Sunday, April 08, 2007

How can something so broken work so well?

Again, sorry for the teaser. No one is going to read this stuff without an intriguing title. In my defense, the U.S. primary and secondary education does smell pretty bad.

So Vaso Bovan on Linkedin asked the question, "Despite Inferior Elementary/Secondary Public Education, USA Dominates. Why?" Why indeed. To consider this question properly, I think you have to relax some of your assumptions and reexamine a definition or two.

First, what is education? U.S. schools definitely lag behind internationally in teaching math, science, languages, and probably literature and history as well. But they are excellent at encouraging students to develop good social skills, and to learn to question authority and ask questions. This may be a very large offsetting factor in how American students perform after high school graduation. A big part of actual achievement in life is related to abilities that cannot be memorized.

Another major factor is the lack of early tracking in the U.S. In most countries against which America is compared, there are entrance exams to enter middle school and/or high school and to stay on an academic track. Many more students begin preparation for a trade between ages 13-15 and these students (in most European countries and in China for example) are no longer counted as being in "high school" when it comes time to take tests for puposes of preparation.

Another significant item is that the U.S. Economy is less socialist that most (if not all) major European countries. The efficiencies from lower tax rates and the business friendly legal environment make it easier to establish businesses. Because of this there is a critical mass of entrepreneurs, and many people see entrepreneurship as a path to success very early on.

No one doubts the signifcance of brain drain. The U.S. gets the best and brightest from many places, and they stay and raise their children. That is a powerful force. Think about how adventurous an immigrant has to be to leave everything behind and come to a new country to build a life for their children. U.S. Immigration policy, for all of its faults, is exceptional at getting high quality hard working people, and for the most part they end up feeling tremendous loyalty to their new country.

The U.S. is also more religious than China and Europe. For all the sects, something approaching 90pct of Americans self-identify as Christian. Largely homogenous religious values, particularly in a religion that aggressively teaches charity and giving might help.

And the final major factor is access to capital. I don't think there is anywhere else in the world where it is as easy for someone with a good idea to find money to "make it so".

So the long and the short of it is that although learning more facts in school is probably a good thing, it isn't the only thing. And the benefits from a more business friendly environment, a more efficient economy, high quality immigration, better access to capital more than make up for the defecits. Strong national pride and strong and largely homogenous religious values along with an education system that fosters cooperation and the development of good social skills all seem to more than counteract the lag in learning facts and academic skills at an early age.

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