No Country Left Behind: US Education in the Globalized World

By Spellings, Margaret | Harvard International Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

No Country Left Behind: US Education in the Globalized World


Spellings, Margaret, Harvard International Review


Is the fact that US math and science education is trailing behind other nations the biggest threat to the future power and status of the United States?

I think it is threatened; I really do. We go around saying that the American higher education system is the finest in the world. That may be true, but that is not the question. The question is: Is it fine enough for the way forward? We do a very, very poor job of getting minority students in and out of college. If you are Hispanic, you have about a one in ten chance of having a baccalaureate degree by the time you are 30 years old. Especially if you are from a state like mine, Texas. That is worrisome. A clear problem exists when half the population has very little education in the state that, if considered a country, would have the 14th largest economy in the world. We are not adequately meeting the needs of all of our citizens, and we are not apparently--as evidenced by all of these rankings--providing enough rigor or high enough levels of skill to those who are already in college, particularly in math and science.

It is troubling, obviously, and there is a lot of bipartisan support for initiatives to boost interest and achievement in math and science, but I do not think we have made the sell with students yet. They need to care about this more. And my generation--the parents of today's students--think, "We have had a good life and we do not know any math." They fail to understand that this is not the world they grew up in.

What do you think US policymakers must do to better engage students in math and science?

I think we need to show them the real-world connection of why it is important and how exciting the careers and the opportunities are in those fields. If you want to be a problem-solver, if you want to cure cancer, if you want to work on the environment, if you want to work on many of our most notable challenges, math and science is the way forward. But I think we have not made students see beyond the initial, perceived dryness of the content and understand its fascinating applicability to everyday life.

I also think we have many weak and uninspiring teachers in math and science. This is deadly. No wonder kids tune out. Many of these teachers are ill-prepared, particularly at the elementary and middle-school levels. They are often intimidated by the material themselves, so guess what--they do not engender wild enthusiasm for their subjects, and the rest is history.

Do you believe that the US education system requires an "Asian" overhaul--for example, longer school days, more frequent short recess periods, and an earlier introduction of vocational focus--in order to become stronger?

As you just said, there are many interesting policy elements in the "Asian" way. We need to use the data and information we have, thanks to No Child Left Behind, that shows us what works, where, with whom, and how.

I do think that one of the things that we should co-opt from the Asian way of thinking is focusing our math curriculum, which currently is a mile wide and an inch deep. I certainly saw this with my daughter's education. It is not laid out very well; it is not sequential; it does not make sense. In Asia, it is very dense and quite limited. They do a few things, and they do them very well. So every single citizen has a high proficiency in the core concepts, as opposed to our kids who are lost in space with everything in the kitchen sink thrown in but none of it put together in a coherent way. When I was the US Secretary of Education, I appointed a national math panel with world-famous mathematicians, and one of their major recommendations was that we have a more coherent math curriculum.

Some of those other programs, like after school, can work, particularly for those who are behind. There are some other strategies we can incorporate, but I also think our system fosters creativity, independence, and autonomy, and we should guard that jealously as competitive advantages of our own. …

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