Why American education is not as bad off as you think …


This article from the New York Times talks about the annual college admission test in China.  It is a nine hour long test that is given only once a year (not a good day to get sick).  Late students can be turned away.  One notion in the story discusses teens taking special contraceptives to avoid getting their period during testing.  One teacher made $60,000 selling ear pieces to families so that their students could cheat ….. until they were caught and the teacher arrested.

You thought high risk testing in the U.S. was bad?  In China, this test is apparently centered on memorization, with students studying weeks for nine hours a day just to be ready.  40% of those who take the test are not successful.

Nonetheless, it highlights an issue that is very central to the debate of American education being “so bad”.  Memorization vs. problem solving.

Over the last two decades, there has been a gradual push, which by now is a tidal wave, to convert over the old American system of education from one of memorizing facts to one of solving problems.  I cannot say that this has taken hold in every American school, but I can say it is vastly more common than it was before.  For those who ever took the ACT, you know that there is virtually nothing one it about memorizing facts … it is very much about application of what you have learned.  Some have even pointed to the shift in college admission as a triumph of “new education” (I’m not sure about that, though it may be a factor, and I’ll leave it at that).

One fundamental problem with this type of education, is that it creates a shift in skills.  What used to be very important is now very unimportant.

Take spelling.  In an era of digital spell checkers, students are not learning the rules of spelling anymore.  English is not the easiest language to grasp the rules of spelling in, and without them being taught anymore, not surprising, when students are asked to write, especially without the spell checker, they are lost.  Some people look at the writing and mutter something bad about schools.  Parents get upset when they see that their child can’t seem to write well, and blame the school.

There’s another issue.  Memorization is rather easy for those with good memories.  Problem solving is hard for virtually everyone.  If you have a good memory, you can memorize everything from vocabulary words in biology and economics to dates in history.  Problem solving is more complex, and is not a universally applicable skill.  For example, some people are naturals at solving mathematical problems.  Some are whizzes at seeing solutions to problems in business and finance.  Others see simple problems that have arisen in history, and how to apply them to modern problems (from psychology to social situations to diplomacy).  Others can more easily solve problems animal or mineral (or electronic).

Given that American schools (at least high schools) were built around the idea of a liberal education (a little bit of everything to make you a better rounded person, whether you would be fixing an engine, or winning a Nobel Prize for building one that doesn’t pollute), the approach to teaching problem solving still exists ….. you take biology and history, algebra and literature, but now instead of memorizing facts, you are being faced with solving multiple problems related to your studies.  Overall, the more different problems you are forced to confront, the better you get at solving them (or at least the better off you are at determining what problems you are good at solving, and what problems you might want to avoid in the future).

Herein lies the problem.  In the past, kids who could memorize everything got straight A’s.  There weren’t many of them, but there they were.  When it comes to problem solving, there just aren’t that many people who can solve every kind of problem thrown at them (there are, they are pretty rare though).  The idea behind tests like the ACT is that if students have been learning problem solving strategies, they should be able to do well in solving the multiple problems posed to them on the ACT (math, reading, etc)

Thus, grades dropped while test scores went up (ironic).  Parents can’t complain to the ETS, but they can complain to teachers and administrators and school boards.

The result:  teachers have a gun to their head to lower expectations so that someone’s precious and perfect child does not see a blemish on their report card.

Then NCLB came along …..

With NCLB, schools suddenly were forced to play a game:  keep teaching problem solving, or go back to teaching “to the test”.  In other words, when the federal government compared our test scores to those of other nations, and saw we weren’t doing good, they panicked and tried to make the U.S. like other countries ….. when in fact that wasn’t ever going to be possible (under the law), and was not even something that might have been good to do.

Let me compare a couple of schools to make my point, which some of my readers may be familiar with (my apologies in advance to those who are not familiar with these schools.

Oak Forest High School in Oak Forest, Illinois is a pretty average high school for America.  According to its school report card:


Oak Forest has an average ACT score of 21.2 (see page 3 of the report).  This is a point or so above average  for the nation.  It is respectable, though hardly anything to go running to the newspapers for.  If you check the last page, you will see that Oak Forest is not on Academic Watch for NCLB.

I used to teach in Oak Forest’s district, and keep my eyes on what is going on.  Their teaching staff is OK, but not great ….. some teachers may be ahead of the curve, but as a whole, there is not a lot of unbelievably great stuff going on.  Exceedingly “slightly above average”.

Let’s compare that to Maine South High School:


Keeping in mind that every junior student in Illinois is required to take the ACT, Maine South scores a whopping 24.4 on the ACT.  For any public school, that’s a remarkably high average score (did I mention this school has over 2,500 students).  Not to mention, our school has a very dynamic teaching environment …. lots of support to do new things with students, and a lot of pressure to do so.  There is a lot of pretty good educating going on.

Now, check out the last page.  Maine South is on their third year of not making minimum progress on NCLB (we are hardly the worst in the north suburbs, only a few schools like New Trier have not been bitten yet).

So, why do things look bleak?  Go back and start looking at page 4.  There is another test called “Prairie State Test”.  This is a test that harps more on memorization, and was worked on by a committee from across the state.  Being a science person, I hate this thing.  There is some biology, some chemistry, some physics some geology, some astronomy, some environmental science ….. a lot more than what even the best students learn in a high school career.  Our AP students get to the earth science  and start guessing.  Why?  Because in downstate Illinois, they teach a lot of Earth science, and not much physics.

The result:  the scores are artificially deflated for everyone, and everyone looks worse than they really are.  In an attempt to require some memorization and some problem solving, the kids (and their teachers) get labeled failures.

That’s the nice thing about China though …. if you memorize enough, you are in!

But ….. what kind of education is that?


3 Responses to Why American education is not as bad off as you think …

  1. Alan P. says:

    I have to chime in that it is important to have a balance of memorization and problem-solving. And in my teaching experience at one midwestern university, there was a disappointing lack of both.

    You can’t “problem-solve” the definitions for sine, cosine, and tangent – you just need to know them. And if you don’t know them, then you can’t use them to solve problems that need trig.

    At this particular university, most students traded both the memorization and problem-solving with the “file system” – using someone else’s homework, quizzes, and exams from a past semester as models to complete their work. I would call it cheating. Both in the sense of representing someone else’s work/knowledge as their own, as well as cheating themselves of the learning opportunity.

    Many of these students had trouble solving simple problems, other than just making sure some mechanical components “fit together”.

    • teganx7 says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more …. there are certain things that more or less need to be memorized, but there are relatively few things. Even things like trig relationships are memorized more through constant use and application instead of memorizing them for a one time test. Certainly, there are definitions that need to be memorized if for nothing else, so that there is common terminology between students and teacher … for communication purposes. However, I have found that in the course of a whole year physics course, students need really not memorize more than two-three dozen new terms, and less than two dozen new basic concepts (the students have had a semester course in physics before, so things like “inertia” and “acceleration” aren’t totally new, though far from understood.

  2. Alan P. says:

    Let me amend my previous comment. I realize that I used the word, “know”, rather than “memorize”. You need to “know” multiplication tables, definitions of trig functions, the differential equation for beam deflection (I sound like a math major), etc.

    Knowing comes from repetition or experience, and implies understanding. With understanding comes the ability to recognize these concepts in problems, and problem-solve with these tools.

    So my position is:
    memorizing = undesirable (not quite “bad”)
    knowing = good
    problem-solving = good

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