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Education Abroad Not Always What It Seems

By Walt Gardner — May 13, 2011 2 min read

Reformers like to point to schools overseas as models because they say American schools are inferior. I’ve written often why this view is overblown and why a more nuanced view is necessary. The latest reminder was a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal about India’s system of education (“India Graduates Millions, but Too Few Are Fit to Hire,” Apr. 5).

Despite India’s reputation for graduating hundreds of thousands of students each year who are prepared for career or college, the truth is that employers cannot find enough qualified workers to meet their needs. As a result, they are forced to look overseas. That’s because the vaunted system of schooling in India is largely a myth. The problem is that schools rely heavily on rote memorization, rather than on critical thinking and comprehension.

According to The Wall Street Journal, 75 percent of technical graduates and more than 85 percent of general graduates are unemployable. There is a gap between their skills and the job requirements. These findings contradict the alarmist claims made by reformers in the U.S. about the superiority of our international competitors. I wrote an op-ed about this subject for the International Herald Tribune on Jan. 14, 2008 (“The ‘crisis’ of U.S. education”). The so-called crisis is ginned up by those who want to undermine taxpayer confidence in public schools in order to pave the way for privatization of all schools.

Although India was the subject of the most recent article, similar stories have been published about China, Japan and South Korea. All four countries have curriculum and instruction that do not provide ample opportunity for creativity. Their students perform exceptionally well on tests that measure rote memorization, but this ability does not serve them well when they enter the workforce. This is what led Singapore’s former minister of education to distinguish between an exam meritocracy and a talent meritocracy.

Public schools in the U.S. range in quality from excellent to execrable. Unfortunately, too little attention is given to the former. This creates a distorted picture. I’ve always believed that students from suburban schools, for example, would more than hold their own against students from any other country. I’m not saying that complacency is warranted. On the contrary. But taxpayers are not being told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about public schools.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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