wasting bandwidth since 1999

Concerned With The Wrong Element

In his New York Times column, Mr. World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, takes a brief glance at the quality of American education, comparing it, as you might expect, to that of other countries.

His motivation for the column comes from reading a new study, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools” (which I can’t find online).

Based on that Friedman comes to the conclusion that things are bad and getting worse. So bad that student “performance” is at least partially responsible for dragging down the economy.

The answer, says McKinsey: If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher. If we had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher. If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been narrowed, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher.

Wow! I have no idea how the researchers arrive at making a direct correlation between education and economic performance, especially since the measurement tools used most often are one-size-fits-all standardized tests that largely assess basic skills.

Anyway, for all his writing about how the world has changed, Friedman, as with way too many other “experts”, still seems to view “education” in terms of the traditional assembly line model from the previous century, one in which generating easy-to-spreadsheet numbers passes for quality control.

And the skyrocketing use of tests such as those cited by him only serves to further lock the American education system into that same industrial model.

I have to admit that part of my annoyance with Friedman’s column comes from the fact that I’m currently listening to the audio version of Ken Robinson’s book The Element (after reading the dead tree edition).

In it he tells the stories of many people who are successful in spite of their formal education, while discussing how every person is intelligent in some way, with passions and talents that don’t necessarily fit the patterns dictated by society.

While some of his subjects found their “element”* with the assistance of an insightful teacher, more than a few simply abandoned the whole process of school and developed their unique skills through other forms of learning, sometimes long after their formal education ended.

We are rightly concerned about the rising drop out rate in the US and I’m sure some of that is built into the formulas used to determine the economic toll of this “international achievement gap”.

However, I wonder how many students we have currently sitting in our high schools who will add their numbers to the graduation rate without acquiring at least an inkling of something at which they are both talented and passionate.

To me that is a far more important problem than all the low test scores and negative economic statistics over which Friedman frets.

* Robinson defines a person’s “element” as the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.

Update: Thanks, Brett for finding the link to the study. He knows how to use the Google better than me. :-)


  1. brett

    Tim, this might be the study: http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/socialsector/achievementgap.asp

  2. Skip Olsen

    You make a good point. My concern is that, despite all the columns, reports, hand wringing, good intentions, etc., school is essentially the same as when my father went to school in the early part of the 20th century. And we’re paying a high price for wasting so much talent and energy in the current system.

    Thanks for provoking my thinking.

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