Blackboards or Basketballs: The Future of American Education?Published: February 25, 2011 in Knowledge@Emory
During his State of the Union address in January, President Obama talked about reigniting the U.S. educational system, specifically with more of an emphasis on science and mathematics, where the country lags behind many other nations. It’s a worthy goal, but one that may be difficult to achieve, according to some Emory faculty.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. lags far behind nations like India and China when it comes to science and math,” says Jagdish Sheth, a chaired professor of marketing at Emory University's Goizueta Business School and founder of the India China America (ICA) Institute, a research and educational organization that focuses on economic, political, and security relationships between India, China, and the U.S.
It wasn’t always this way, he notes, pointing out that historically, initiatives like U.S. land grant colleges and space defense programs helped to place the nation at the forefront of diverse fields, from agriculture to technology.
“But beginning in the 1980s when Wall Street was booming, the U.S. moved away from the STEMs—or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and toward finance and business,” he observes. “Career and job opportunities seemed to be for business and economic students, so the STEMs suffered.”
For awhile, he notes, the U.S. was able to hold its own because students from Asia and Eastern Europe were still coming here to study math, science, and engineering and stayed on. But as the economy in their homelands continues to improve, these students are increasingly leaving the U.S. and taking their skills with them, Sheth says.
“The challenge is exacerbated because among the youth, sports and show business figures are held up as role models instead of scientists, teachers, or mathematicians,” Sheth laments. “So it’s not just a matter of putting more money into schools—but rather changing the mindset of the youth themselves.”
While Asian parents in particular are hiring tutors and rousing their children at 5:00 AM to get in additional study time, many younger people think a basketball court or other sports venue is the answer, he adds. “Changing this mindset, and getting kids to be passionate about learning, starts with the family.”
The problem, he notes, is that “many families—especially where there’s a single parent or where both parents work full time—feel they just don’t have enough time to intellectually engage with their children.”
But the government can play a role in remedying the situation, according to Sheth.
“Some potential solutions include encouraging employers to adopt flex hours so parents can spend time in the morning studying with their children, instead of cramming it in at the end of day,” he suggests. “Also, why do schools have to start early in the morning? Pushing the start date back by a few hours would also make it easier for parents to work closely with their children on their studies.”
Following the lead of countries like Japan, Korea, India and China, which have a longer school year, would be beneficial, he adds.
“And reducing the heavy emphasis on school sports and other extracurricular activity would not only conserve some money, but would make more time available to learn,” Sheth says.
The basic educational model may also need an overhaul, he observes.
“Traditional schooling is very much a one-way communications experience,” he explains. “Making it interactive, perhaps with digital technology like iPads and Kindle, would enable teachers and students to work in a more coordinated, two-way manner while promoting a more individualized learning experience.”
Sheth also complains that the U.S. is stuck in an outdated silo mentality, where each subject is taught independently by a specialist.
"We need to shift from three R's of learning to the three I's of learning: interactive, integrated, and individualized,” he says.
But getting people to change can be difficult, he admits.
“It’s like losing weight or eating better,” Sheth says. “People will often resist adopting better habits until they experience a health or other crisis that serves as a wakeup call. But the U.S. is getting that wakeup call right now, from South Korea, Japan, and China, which have strong primary and secondary educational systems. I really hope the U.S. will acquire a sense of urgency and will respond sooner, rather than later.”