America’s Problem: How the World is “Beating Us” in a Battle We Don’t Necessarily Want to Win

  • America’s Problem: How the World is “Beating Us” in a Battle We Don’t Necessarily Want to Win
  • America’s Problem: How the World is “Beating Us” in a Battle We Don’t Necessarily Want to Win
  • America’s Problem: How the World is “Beating Us” in a Battle We Don’t Necessarily Want to Win
  • America’s Problem: How the World is “Beating Us” in a Battle We Don’t Necessarily Want to Win


“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”-Albert Einstein

America isn’t Good at Testing

Whenever a debate comes up regarding the massive problems with the current educational system it seems that there’s always someone who deviates from the core problem (fundamentally how we are taught and the institutions themselves) and states the overly used statistic that America ranks among the worst in standardized test scores around the world.

For example:

Besides further reinforcing the notion that

‘Grades = Success’

the argument ultimately circumvents the real problems underlying the education system in America and around the world; primarily, the way students are taught, their expected output, and the ways in which they are judged to be competent.

Supporting the point of view that “we simply need to increase test scores” can hardly result in anything worthwhile as it will only end in more “solutions” composed of “better” standards, more tests, and stricter curriculums in an effort to “catch-up” with the rest of the world. (All of which—speaking as a recent graduate—we hardly need more of.)

This traditional point of view—the educational system we’ve been reinforcing for more than a century—fundamentally rests on the foundation of treating each and every student as an interchangeable part.

We force our youth into taking virtually all the same classes, subject them to the same standardized tests, and judge their future worth and potential off an average. In doing so, we bring smart students down to an average level, ignore average students, make under-achieving students feel absolutely hopeless, and leave brilliant students unchallenged and completely unmotivated. By destroying this natural variation we suppress the best parts of our human condition; the unique strengths and individualistic tendencies that lie within all of us.

While this process may work great for manufacturing parts in a factory, it’s a death sentence to future generations that will be dependent on innovation and adaptive thinking to stay competitive (read: relevant) in the world.

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We have a system that ultimately does little else but create masses of average, uniform, subservient, order following drones, that are afraid of doing anything unique or different because the desire to stand out or “break the rules” has been slowly beat out of them through decades of formalized schooling.

Sir Ken Robinson says it all in this video:

The Value of Obedience

What’s worse, is that the “education competition” has turned into nothing more than a race to the bottom. Looking around us, it is all too easy to see this “race to the bottom,” as overseas workers, who are willing to work for a tenth of the price, obtain jobs formerly held by degree holding Americans. These jobs, it should be noted, are exactly the type that formalized schooling and standardization train students for —  follow orders, obey protocol, and do what you’re told. Creativity and insight are thrown out for rule books, as is opportunity for progress and advancement for everyone.

Year after year this outsourcing is getting cheaper and cheaper as access to education and technology expands throughout developing countries. Just as we witnessed many of our manufacturing plants migrate overseas, we are already feeling another massive shift; but this time, of white-collar workers to cheaper, yet, just as competent and capable areas of the globe (more here). Sure, some “emerging” countries may appear to be closing the gap in average income (due to decades of hyper growth), but even if the countries we depend on now do lose their wage advantages, there will always be somewhere cheaper to go; especially as communication and infrastructure continue to improve around the developing world. This ultimately means that the value of this type of work (degree included) will continue to decrease for the foreseeable future.

Back to the main point…

If we truly are in a race to the bottom, should we really be trying to win? If getting better grades and memorizing more stuff isn’t producing value then what should we be striving for?

To be clear, I am not proposing that unfocused, under-achieving students are a good thing. After all, students of this nature (i.e. students who feel disconnected and who lack passion or meaning with anything they are supposed to be learning.) are essentially the result of the overbearing, standardized system we currently have in place. (of course there are always a few individuals who are just plain lazy)

We obviously need to fix this but not by doing more of the same thing; that will just make our situation even more dire. Nor am I proposing that we avoid challenging our students to reach the height of their potential. In-fact, that is exactly the opposite of what I propose and precisely what the current system is designed for.

On the contrary, what I am saying is that our system can and should find better ways of fostering and developing our youth so that school isn’t a burden, but rather, an exciting time to develop passions and critical life skills.

What we need is to redefine our definition of what being “educated” truly means.

The point being, that improving something that doesn’t matter (higher grades in and of themselves) isn’t an improvement, it’s a waste.

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So then what?

Back to Basics

I think the answer is fairly obvious and even today is the primary reason why America maintains its position as the leading economy on the planet. That is, the tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship that has defined the American spirit since our beginnings many years ago.

Americans are well-known for being scrappy as hell. Looking back on our history, do we see our successes on the shoulders of those who followed the rules all day and did what they were told? Of course not, we owe our much of our successes and opportunities to the entrepreneurs and creative types who had the nerve and the vision to create or start something on their own.

From the revolutionary leaders and founders of this country to the industrial innovators of the 18th and 19th centuries, the current tech leaders of the modern age, and the small business owners throughout, we have thrived not because of our inherited systems and standards, but because of our overwhelming propensity to break the status quo and create our vision of the future today.


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Sure, the majority of the population supported and provided the skill and workers necessary to build up these systems, but when it comes down to it, the successes of our past and present rest on the shoulders of the ones who were free minded enough to strike out on their own accord. With the oncoming age of communication and technology, the free thinking entrepreneurial spirit is becoming more and more necessary for workers of every type, not just the few people at the top of large corporations. We are moving into a future where entrepreneurial minded people will be the only kind of worker that have Real Value.

Lessons from the Valley

Creation involves pouring your entire self into your project. It requires flexibility, perseverance, innovation, and the willingness to fail (among others). What it doesn’t call for is strict adherence to established processes, standardization, or the status quo.

Isn’t this the very reason Silicon Valley and Startup incubators across our country have been so successful? Isn’t it because their culture dictates that they deviate from the norm and do what works instead of continuing to follow an inefficient system?

America is dominating the online and digital environment, yet, this has hardly anything to do with formal education and almost everything to do with the creative spirit and the entrepreneurial initiative I have been speaking of.

Why aren’t so many other countries that do so much better academically not even remotely as influential when comparing this new and quickly growing environment?

Perhaps it is because the traditional approach to standardized schooling stamps out the very mindset needed to succeed in the new world of technology and business.

Perhaps coloring in the lines isn’t as beneficial (or beautiful) as it once was.


Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 11.54.43 AMStartup Lessons Learned

What we should be doing is emulating the culture of the tech startup and Silicon Valley. What we should be doing is taking lessons from this new frontier and applying them to outdated ones (i.e. “education”).  I see no reason to remain stuck in past thinking and rhetoric when we already have already developed new systems that are capable of being applied to other, older systems.

Eric Ries and the Lean Startup movement he has created is a perfect example of the “type” of system I am proposing. A new, highly adaptive process that when applied to the broader systems of government and education, could ultimately transform each and every one of our lives and bring us into the next era swinging. (Actually, the Government has already shown an interest in this methodology)

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Sure the transition wouldn’t be without its fair share of difficulties, but the end result would be a system that fosters the growth and development of each student instead of promoting mass conformity. It would be an education system that quickly adapts to the interests and strengths of each student instead of trying to fit them into a mold. It would create graduates who are extremely passionate about what they have learned, and extremely capable and confident in their abilities.

Isn’t that something worth working towards?

Can you imagine throngs of passionate, highly capable professionals graduating from universities every year? Each on a mission to create the future with their own hands rather than drearily waking up every morning and half-assing their day job until they get to go home?

I can, and it makes me excited just thinking about it.

It is this type of freethinking and passionate individual that will lead us to the next great age of American leadership. It is this, the American dream at its very core, that will allow us to retain the freedoms and the privilege so many of us have begun to take for granted.

Or it will be another nation’s ticket to the top.

We don’t have a right to be the most powerful nation on earth; it is something we must work for and nurture every day of our lives.

It starts by changing our approach towards educating and developing the next generation of Americans. It starts by accepting that the world is a quickly changing pace, that things aren’t always going to be the way they have been, and that, with a little push, America can hold onto the great spirit of freedom, commerce, and innovation that we have all worked so hard to obtain.

Who gives a shit if China is better at taking tests. Let’s instead focus our efforts on preparing our future generations to be the next leaders and innovators in the world. Let’s focus on the battle that’s worth winning.

Which leaves a choice to be made…

Should we rise to the challenge and redefine our educational methods to exponentially increase the creative energy and output of the next generation?

Or should we continue trying to shovel water out of a ship that is destined for the depths of history?

The choice is up to you…

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Author: Graham Mumm

Graham Mumm is the CEO and Chief Product Architect at ReBilder. He’s been to more than 44 countries and spends his free time reading, learning tinkering, and exploring new opportunities.


19 Responses to America’s Problem: How the World is “Beating Us” in a Battle We Don’t Necessarily Want to Win

  1. Sounds to me like you should open your own school to experiment and innovate with the ideas you’ve proposed in this post. Of course that’s hard to do with a government monopoly interfering in the sector.

    We as a nation will never be able to create a better education with the current establishment running the show. Teachers today are for one thing: more resources to teachers. If a few kids get educated along the way that’s fine, as long as the taxpayer money dosen’t stop coming in.

    What we need is an inteligently regulated market for education. No subsides, no monopolies, and no corruption. We need experimentation, innovation, and an attitude that allows for failing schools to close down under market pressure,

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  3. Corey, turning our education systems over to the “free market” will accelerate not decelerate the “race to the bottom,” the problem is the measurement systems we use today that indicate success don’t work they have never worked, standardized testing doesn’t show academic success it shows that someone has memorized the answers in the standardized curriculum. Each individual student needs an individualized assessment, and that doesn’t fit with anyone’s convenient, easy, or cheap metric, so it will never be done.

    You praise the article and then turn around and want to impose “free market” schools on every American child which will be led by the very standardized testing metric the author is railing against. This is one of the biggest problems with the free market, measurement of success has to be easy, and cheap. Whether it’s profit, market share, test score, the free market is horrible at doing anything but producing the cheapest, most efficient, lowest common denominator products or in your scenario students.

    • “”Whether it’s profit, market share, test score, the free market is horrible at doing anything but producing the cheapest, most efficient, lowest common denominator products or in your scenario students.”

      I disagree. The free market provides options at every price level people are willing to pay. As a whole, education would be vastly improved through the free market, where schools would compete to provide the best education. Government will never be able to do a better job than the free market with education.

      The governments agenda with public school isn’t to create educated people who love to learn. The governments goal with public school is to create people who are easy to manage and compliant. The problem is that public schools are terrific at achieving that.

    • What a gross oversimplification of the ‘free market.’ That may be one approach that an entity can take but a free market is tied to supply and demand, not necessarily profits.

  4. My wife is a teacher. From what I’ve heard her tell of her job over the years, modern education is steered by fad and fashion.

    Every year an assortment of buzzwords is paraded out by the central planning committee which needs to be “adopted” by the teaching staff. Textbooks frequently change for no apparent reason. Classrooms are shuffled. New “baseline” testing is introduced, but what the testing ultimately measures is never explained or even followed upon. One year teachers cooperate via “teaming”, the next they don’t. Emotionally disturbed students are mainstreamed. Technology is introduced without forethought and often complicates, rather than streamlines, the teaching process. Parents are abusive, as are often their children. Teaching materials are laced with contemporary political dogma. Victimhood is emphasized rather than virtue. History has become defamation.

    Return to the classics. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Plato’s Dialogs, Hesiod’s Theogony, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophane’s plays, Aesop’s Fables, Euclid’s Elements, Aristotle’s Organon, Politics, Rhetoric, and Poetics, Plutarch’s Lives, Fux’s Counterpoint, Wheelock’s Latin, Pharr’s Homeric Greek, G. H. Hardy’s “A Course of Pure Mathematics”, Hogben’s “Mathematics for the Million”, Turner’s “Voice and Speech in the Theatre”, Spencer’s “Spencerian Penmenship”, Knigge’s Etiquette, Abelson and Sussman’s “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs”, “Lion’s Commentary on Unix”, Pike and Kernighan’s “The Unix Programming Environment” …all are classics which have stood the test of time. Reading, writing, and arithmetic produced Western Civilization’s past heroes, and there is no reason it cannot in turn produce tomorrows’. Lasting books produce an education that lasts.

  5. The problem with schools was identified many years ago by John W Campbell (I think), editor of analog,which he described as confusing equality of opportunity with equality of result.
    The increasing bureaucratic control imposed by government, and the one size fits all approach to education is a major problem.
    At the lower levels, education needs to be somewhat selective, as too broad a range of ability in a subject in one class convinces those with the poorest ability that they can’t learn, and leaves the best bored. Initial lack of ability may be due to home circumstances, so mobility between ability groups is required.
    The bureaucracy above the school level is a major problem, as they always simplify their problems to make the easier to manage, Also they want something to measure, hence standard curriculum’s, and emphasis on exam results. As the bureaucracy needs to appear to be doing something they also fiddle with what they can control.
    Some exams, or other controlled means of determining abilities in a subject are required for higher education. This is to guide and protect the potential student from wasting time and money on a course they probably can’t complete. Institutes of higher learning should largely set the exam contents, as both topic coverage and ability required differ for different courses.
    This allow pupils and teachers to select exams more closely matched to ability, and better guidance to near future education choices. It should be possible to take exams on request in the exam seasons. Success in education at a lower level is more likely to lead to further leaning when it becomes desirable for some purpose.
    Higher education needs to be flexible, as some people may only desire more specialized knowledge in a topic, Rather than a full degree. This could be because a person is goal driven, and/or desires to catch up on new knowledge. Given the modular nature of courses of higher education, this should not be a major problem.
    A direction for higher education may be to put recorded lecture online, and provide tutoring and lab work facilities. Assessment of coursework, along with a formal validation of learning is required where proof of ability is required. Provision of study centers and facilities would also be useful, and not necessarily tied to the institutes courses. Students can assist each other.

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