An Educational Imperative

Young students participating in class. Photo Courtesy of Tufts Now

Danny Zeng | August 22, 2013

This morning’s Journal had an op-ed titled “An Exit Strategy for Bad Teachers.” The article highlights a recent study by National Bureau of Economic Research that suggests no loss but gains in student achievement when young, enthusiastic teachers replace older, near-retirement colleagues in Illinois. Early retirement initiative is thus estimated to be more cost-effective than reducing classroom size.  Perhaps it is time to be innovative and radical with our thinking in order to improve K-12 in this country.

Some background on where U.S. stands in education internationally from Professor Paul Peterson and others: slightly less than one-third of U.S. students are considered proficient in Math and Reading, placing us 32nd and 17th, respectively among nations participating in PISA (Program for International Students Assessment), a representative report card of 15-year-old students across 65 countries. Texas is slightly above U.S. national average on Math, but we are below the national average on Reading.


The ethnic discrepancy is also significant if not more troubling. Whites and Asians are significantly more proficient in math and reading than other ethnic groups. Hispanic students have the lowest proficiency in reading, at a meager 5%; while blacks show the lowest proficiency in math, at 11%.  This is and should not be acceptable for anyone who’s serious about improving the education system in the U.S.

Why does this matter for the U.S? From the same paper, the authors cited research showing that testing scores are correlated to a country’s long-term economic growth. Standards and accountability remain important if the U.S. is serious in maintaining its economic prowess. Professor Peterson estimates an additional $1 trillion gain in wealth per year if we improve math proficiency to the level of South Korea (58%). That has the potential of wiping out our federal deficit, in addition to ensuring long-term growth and prosperity.

With the $4 million Mr. Kim buzzing up a free-market debate about education policy recently in the Journal, perhaps it is time to consider what can be done to spark improvement in our own education system. Korean education system, one of the best in the world by international standards, is supported by a network of tutoring services known as hagwons, some of which are national enterprises that are publicly traded. This free-spirit, laissez-fair style of education relies on customer (student) feedback, competition, and meritocracy may seem “ruthless” and radical, but it is apparently well-received: “In a 2010 survey of 6,600 students at 116 high schools conducted by the Korean Educational Development Institute, Korean teenagers gave their hagwon teachers higher scores across the board than their regular schoolteachers.”

Here in the United States, we tend to shut down our educational apparatus against free-market experiment, as the word “reform” will incite rapid backlash from teachers’ unions. This is not to say that the hagwon model is operable here in the U.S., but neither can one suggest the current system if operable either. Against the failure prominently illustrated by the graph above – the result of our official education system – what’s there to lose against new educational experiments?


About Danny Zeng

College student, political junkie, I like to read, and I like to learn

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