The Real Truth About the American Education System


I watched a brief video recently pitched as “the truth” about the American education system. The implication is we live in a “sick” society because there isn’t enough emphasis on education. I was astonished that this content has been shared 25k times and sought to analyze Rogan’s comments as it has clearly struck a nerve.

Before we consider the video “the truth” about the American education system, let’s think critically and tease apart the message.

Joe Rogan (not sure who he is or why his unsubstantiated opinion is considered ‘the truth’) basically says -via lots of cursing, because that makes you more credible apparently- that school sucks in the US. He tells us a secondhand anecdote he heard from a mom about 50% of the kids in her son’s US classroom being ‘drugged up’ to manage behavior (ADD?). He also points out US teachers are underpaid, but does not provide context to teacher salaries across the rest of the world. Apart from Switzerland where teacher salaries average $68k USD, teachers appear to be chronically underpaid everywhere. In fact, according to OECD data, US teachers are ranked 12th in salary on average meaning they are not paid the most but they are also not the worst.

Keep an Open Mind
Before I go any further, I want to preface by saying when talking about education systems and a country’s population as a whole, it’s important to keep an open mind and avoid the “Americans are dumb” rhetoric. That’s just as unhealthy, unproductive and offensive as Americans saying “your country is dumb.” In both cases it comes off as ignorant and foolish. The (actual) truth is far more nuanced. There are pros and cons to all educational systems and it’s important to acknowledge the good along with the bad.

Why this Matters

The reason I felt compelled to comment on this is I have first-hand experience studying in both an American and non-American education system.

I am American born and educated from nursery school through a Bachelor’s degree. I then worked 4 years and chose to pursue a Master’s Degree at one of the UK’s top business schools. I also studied abroad as an undergraduate in the UK. This 18 months worth of experience studying in a non-US educational system is my base of reference.

I finished my Master’s of Science in the UK with honors as one of the best students in my program. The coursework was graded differently; that was the main difference. It was more challenging in parts and easier in others. The biggest adaptation is having final exams representing 75% (or more) of your grade which is simply insanity. This was consistent in both universities I studied at, both undergrad and master’s level. In one econ class for my MSc, there were lectures but no assignments, just one final paper that was worth 100% of your grade. I realize that type of grading is common elsewhere in the world but it’s not necessarily better.

It was also peculiar in the UK to receive grades in the high 60s or 70s and it’s the equivalent of a high B or A in the US. I received an 85 on a paper in one of my Master’s courses and apparently that’s hard to get. It was explained to me by a friend that in the UK getting a 90 would mean “you taught the professor something”. It basically doesn’t ever happen, even when you ace an exam or paper.

A Few Data Points to Consider

Indeed, here are a few data points demonstrating why the US education system isn’t as bad as made out in the video or by countless other talking heads.

We’ve consistently produced some of the world’s most innovative thinkers, entrepreneurs, scientists and academics over the last 200 years through our educational system. Not just book smart but also creatively brilliant people who not only stay and contribute to the US economy but also live and work in every corner of the world.

American universities dominate major global university rankings. The proportion of US to other top ranked universities in any other country is not even close.

Research coming out of US universities is world leading in virtually every field. Indeed, according to this source, “56% of our nation’s basic research is being conducted at universities.”

We produce millions of college graduates annually that go on to do great things including the aforementioned entrepreneurs, both domestic and foreign.

The US is home to some of the world’s most well known and most successful businesses, headed by American-educated CEOs and founders.

We have the third most competitive economy in the world led by the world’s best business leaders, the majority of which are American-educated. Indeed, 5 of the top 12 CEOs in the world lead American HQed companies.

Not that wealth is everything but it’s a good indicator of how successful an education system has been when there are lots of millionaires and billionaires living in your country.
We have 15.7 million millionaires – or 46% of the world’s total. 4.9% of the US population are millionaires.

We have 537 billionaires as of 2015, most in the world.
We have produced 336 noble laureates, the most of any country in the world. We are particularly strong in medicine and physiology. For context, China has produced 9 nobel laureates ever, Russia 23, Japan 24.

Concluding Thoughts

In summary, yes, our educational system isn’t perfect – but what system is? My point is while China, India, Japan, the Scandanavian countries etc rank higher in different areas, every country’s educational system has its own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

We need to be proud when appropriate, be critical when necessary but always have a balanced perspective and look at the big picture.

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