Five reasons to be optimistic about education in America


Experts, scholars, politicians, teachers, and parents agree that America’ schools are in trouble.  A strong education, especially math and science education, has become vital preparation for participation in the new high-tech global economy.  By now all Americans realize that our high school students perform dismally in international assessments of achievement.

Reading a few of the books, articles, and speeches about K-12 education in our country can make you depressed and discouraged.  I am acutely aware of these problems and have worked for decades to confront and solve them.

Nonetheless, there is entirely too much hand-wringing going on here.  

In this country, there are programs that work. We can learn strategies for success that from those programs. More to the point, America brings some extraordinary strengths to the new international competition. These strengths are reasons for optimism about our educational future. Here are five; there are others.

The Best Universities in the World

While the United States has a weak elementary and secondary educational system, our higher education system of colleges and universities is the best in the world. Few universities in foreign countries can match Harvard, Cal Tech, Columbia, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA, or North Carolina, to name a few national research centers of excellence. To this day, the best and brightest students in other countries want to attend college or graduate school here. They know that advances in basic scientific research, in diverse fields from medicine to computational science to software design to psychology are more likely to be made in this country than in any other. They know they can learn about scholarly inquiry and research from world leaders.

Furthermore, there is wider access to a college education in the US than in most other nations. A young person seeking higher education encounters a wide and diverse menu of opportunities, including community colleges, where many students choose to begin their college education.

A Cultural Commitment to Education

A commitment to education is deeply ingrained in American culture. Historically, the Federal government has supported education, even during economic or military crises.

Presidents from Jefferson, who tested inventions himself in the White House, to Obama, who has made improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education a centerpiece of his administration, have used the bully pulpit of their office to promote education and research. Three presidents had served as college or university presidents (Garfield, Wilson, and Eisenhower) and two had been trained as engineers (Hoover and Carter). Consider just a few other examples of this Federal commitment to education:

*Under President Lincoln, a massive system of land grant universities was launched by the Morrill Act, in the midst of a bloody civil war.
*The Truman administration saw the founding of the National Science Foundation, which has since funded many of the world’s scientific innovations.
*President Eisenhower and the Congress passed the National Defense Education Act after Sputnik.
*President Johnson fought for passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, even while the nation was becoming bogged down in Vietnam.

A Belief in Second Chances

We believe in giving people a second chance—and, sometimes, a third or fourth chance. In many other nations, if you fail a test while still a child, you cannot recover. For example, Chinese high school students all take the gaokao, a college entrance examination. They experience severe stress as they prepare for this ‘make or break’ exam. A poor performance on this test means that you can kiss your career goodbye at the age of 18.>

In contrast, consider Jim Clark, a high school dropout from Texas who joined the Navy and was assigned to unskilled labor, mopping the ship’s decks. One officer recognized that this young failure had talent and encouraged him to take college courses. He eventually graduated and then earned a PhD in computer science.  He moved to Silicon Valley and started not one, but two hugely successful technology firms: Silicon Graphics and Netscape. He is a billionaire and is a legend among geeks. Had he lived in China, he probably would still be swabbing decks.

From Achievement Gap to Achievement Gallop

This nation and others have been plagued by achievement gaps: young men outperforming women; white students outperforming African Americans and Latinos. But we have learned to close those gaps, which were not based on differences in intelligence. Psychologist Claude Steele demonstrated the cognitive mechanism of “stereotype threat”, in which female or minority students “clutch” on tests because they know that many don’t consider them as smart as majority students—and he showed that the achievement gaps vanish when those pressures are addressed.

My colleagues and I have studied colleges and university programs in Louisiana and Texas where the achievement gap has been turned into an achievement gallop. For example, a Houston consortium of institutions doubled the number of African Americans and Latinos receiving bachelor degrees in STEM in five years. Across this nation, there are a growing number of elementary and secondary schools in impoverished neighborhoods, with minority student populations, that have demonstrated high achievement and sent large numbers of their graduates to college. More to the point, we have isolated the strategies that characterize such success stories, including a mission to educate all students, holding high expectations, committed mentoring, building student peer support groups oriented towards achievement, and data-driven evaluation.

Guide at the Side, Not Sage at the Stage

In recent years, we have made great progress in understanding how students learn. Increasingly the “sage on the stage”, who lectures to dutiful students taking copious notes, is being replaced, or supplemented, by the “guide at the side”, who watches and advises groups of students trying to solve problems.

I serve on the board of an extraordinary independent secondary school in Southern California, the Vistamar School, which has implemented a novel approach to mathematics developed at Exeter Academy. As students encounter a new topic, they are immediately given homework problems to solve—before a teacher has lectured about the topic. Then they meet in structured groups during class time, comparing proposed solutions and debating alternatives, always under the watchful eye of the teacher. Then a representative from each group presents their ideas to the entire class. Only at the end of the class session does the teacher summarize the key principles that have been articulated that day. As one student told me, “I don’t know whether I have mastered math, but, if you give me a problem, I can solve it.”

Online instruction has matured and is employed increasingly at all levels of education. The US remains a world leader in technological innovation (just think of Microsoft, Google, and Facebook) and companies offering online courses, for example, Coursera and Udacity, are the hottest properties in the Silicon Valley.  This mode of instruction crosses national boundaries (more than 150,000 students around the globe registered for an online MIT course on circuits and electronics; 7157passed). But American students likely will be the primary beneficiaries of such innovations as the Kahn Academy.

The US does not have a spotless record, even in these areas of strength.  For example, the student debt problem discourages many students from pursuing a college education and the government’s commitment to education historically included the blight of segregated schools.  

But, though imperfect, these strengths will help us reform our educational systems so that American students can compete successfully in the global marketplace.

Politicians argue about whether there are significant reserves of oil in the United States. One thing is for sure: there are vast reserves of untapped talent in this country.

David E. Drew holds the Platt Chair at the Claremont Graduate University and served for 10 years as dean of the CGU School of Educational Studies.  His most recent book, STEM the Tide:  Reforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in America, is published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. His website is

  1. Rachida

    I’m pretty much interested!