How Can the US Education System Better Prepare Students for Global Competition

In 2006, Monique Jordan’s family lived in Singapore for five months with their then eight-year-old daughter. In 2008, they lived in England. What they found, in terms of the educational systems in these countries, was revealing. “All the kids that we met in Singapore spoke at least two languages, if not more,” she says.

Before leaving the United States, her daughter had been enrolled in the public school system. But her travels abroad had changed her mind-set. On returning to the States in December, she put her daughter in a small independent middle school that focuses on what Jordan calls, “academics, character, and values.”

In March 2008, Bill Gates pointed to a serious shortage of scientists and engineers in the country, warning Congress that the United States could soon lose its competitive edge. Entrepreneurs such as Robert Compton, whose documentary Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination followed the path of six students from India, China, and the US as they prepared for life after high school, have repeatedly been forced to hire workers from India and China. This is not for their willingness to accept lower wages, but for their higher brainpower, he says. He simply can’t find the talent in the States, he told the Harvard University Gazette in April 2008.

Indeed, surveys conducted by the Asia Society and National Geographic reveal that American students fared next to last among students from 14 countries in their knowledge of world regions and current events.

For Jordan, her experience abroad made them re-evaluate their daughter’s education. “It was enlightening to us to experience the election from outside the US this year,” she says. “Our friends, neighbors, and co-workers were all extremely knowledgeable and interested in US politics. I don’t know how many of us can easily engage in a conversation with someone from another country and have an intelligent exchange about their government. It was a humbling experience.”

Is The System Failing Students?

An ailing economy added to a failing educational system can and has compounded the problem. Students are no longer competing with their peers across the campus, but across the globe. And if their education doesn’t prepare them for it, they’ll lose.

The signs are already there. Over the last 10 years, countries in Asia, Latin America, and Central Europe have been growing economically and competitively. The fueling force: Education is becoming available to a larger number of people. And as these opportunities have increased for the populations of these countries, so have the numbers of well-educated, skilled, efficient, and motivated workers.

While the United States has made great strides in addressing issues such as mental health and learning disabilities among students, and making education inclusive for them, there are other notable areas in which it has failed them completely.

“The college graduation rate in the US has slipped from first in the world to fifteenth in only 10 years,” says Maya Frost, author of The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education (Random House). “We have managed to lose a gigantic global game of Red Light, Green Light by waiting too long to turn around and notice that those who were way behind us are now close enough to whisper in our ear, or are running far ahead of us.”

Experts agree almost unanimously that young people aren’t getting the necessary skills and education in economics, language, arts, history, and geography to keep themselves competitive. “We teach things, subject matter, but we don’t teach how to think, that is, to analyze and synthesize and to handle novelty,” says Dr. Robert F. Duvall, president/CEO of the Council for Economic Education.

The problems are many. For one, there’s the approach. Despite technological innovations and availability of modern tools, the American educational system has changed very little over the last few decades. In addition, in an effort to keep all students from feeling less than bright, the system is stifling academic thought and not challenging students enough. More and more, say experts, students are demanding higher grades, often simply for completing the basics of their courses.

And then of course, there’s the money. “As educational organizations experience the financial pressure to retain students, especially at the college level, there’s more of an impetus to view students as customers rather than students,” explains Timothy Warneka, a leadership expert, counselor, and author.

A recent report by the American Institute for Economic Research revealed that college tuition rose by 250% between 1990 and 2008. That’s more than any other component of the cost of living.

What Skills Are Students Lacking?

Most education reform in this country becomes highly politicized, whether at the state or national level. But before politicians, including the new President, can make any substantial change, they need to understand exactly what the shortcomings are and how they’re going to be solved.

“The math-and-Mandarin mindset is a shortsighted approach to dealing with a very complex challenge,” says Frost. “It’s a mistake to assume that excelling in these areas will guarantee that students will be successful in the global economy.”

Experts say America has such diversity in the classroom, which can be used by students to teach each other. What is needed are improved abilities in critical thinking and decision-making, and less emphasis on learning particular technologies. “Technologies changed rapidly, whereas critical thinking does not,” Warneka says, noting that while languages such as Chinese and Spanish are important, how they’re taught is even more so. “Like educational approaches to Shakespeare, currently most languages are taught in a way that only results in the students hating foreign languages even more, an approach that serves to increase the cultural isolation.”

But the key ingredient of a truly global education, says Frost, is developing flexibility, compassion, respect for other ways of doing things, confidence in new settings and foreign language skills, all of which can be achieved by spending time abroad.

Currently, only about 1% of higher-education students in America study abroad, and only 16% of those are undergraduates.

However, says Robin Pendoley, co-founder of Thinking Beyond Borders, it’s important to recognize that simply crossing international borders does not make the experience meaningful or productive.” One can travel to nearly any country in the world and easily be funneled into the local ex-pat community, spending weeks, months, even years living abroad without every really challenging one’s core beliefs or understanding of the world or himself.”

What Needs to Change?

As the world becomes a little bit smaller each month and each year, the jobs of the future are likely to be in innovation of technology and science. American students, business leaders, and entrepreneurs can succeed in this global economy, only if they have enough knowledge of the world to be able to market and develop products aimed at the global consumer.

So far, the educational system does not prepare them for this.” Thirty years ago, Finland had a dismal educational system,” says Frost. “Over the last three decades, it has incorporated critical thinking skills into its curriculum, invested in teacher training, offered good salaries, and de-emphasized standard tests, focusing instead on support teachers in the classrooms and encouraging them to use imaginative ways to teach subjects. Now they have arguably the best education system in the world.”

Make it about teaching students, says Warneka: “Many professors at the college level view students as a nuisance at best. As many institutes of higher education reward their professors far more for research than teaching.”

According to Duvall, there needs to be more emphasis on incremental learning. And Pendoley argues that the most important change should be cultural.” We need to move beyond the culture of education as a political football and students as repositories of math and grammar rules,” he says, explaining that this includes paying teachers well, requiring students to learn new languages and about new cultures, encouraging foreign travel, rewarding accomplishments in science and technology, and most of all, giving them a competitive edge by using to an advantage the vast diversity of the United States.

And it can work. In 2005, Frost and her husband sold everything and left their suburban American lifestyle behind in order to have an adventure abroad. By making smart choices and vowing to give their children a global education, they figured out how to live on a combined income of less than $50,000 while saving enough money to pay for four nearly simultaneous college educations.

Image courtesy of Big Think

  • Vishakha

    In Pune, India, many educationalists like Dr. Arun Nigvekar have come together to form Seamless Education Academy, that is the first and only Creativersity in India. they have very recently launched a blog ( as well. it seems here that they want to give a focus to the creative genius in their students in RJ, Sound Engineering, Gemmology, Animation and Broadcast Media. i think that initiatives like these are a ray of hope and really need to be commended.

  • Chris

    This post brings up a lot of good points, but what I think the most salient idea here is that US kids need to be taught critical-thinking and decision-making.

    I spent a lot of the summer interviewing interns for my company and met some very sharp young men and women. When it came to following instructions, they were diligent and performed well. What was telling was that when faced with problems or new situations, some of them immediately came running to me while others gave it some thought and found their own solutions.

    I’m not certain how much of that is taught in class or just a matter of personality, but we need to be teaching kids to step up and approach problems with a critical mind-set.