More than ever before, there is much talk and discussion about the state of education in the United States, especially in the primary and secondary levels. Ideologies clash. Americans point their fingers in every direction, to politicians, policies, parents, and even to the voting public. Supposedly, convincing quantitative data brings up the question: are American students falling behind?

The answer depends on who is being asked and the definition of falling behind. According to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, the United States is falling behind less wealthy nations such as Estonia and Poland and is average at best. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics states that “in mathematics literacy, American 15 year olds’ average score of 487 on the 2009 PISA was lower than the OECD average score of 496" and "in science literacy, the average score of 15-year-old students in the United States was not measurably different from the OECD average score."

The figures are paradoxical. How can the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world be worse off than other less well-to-do nations? If we look at the big picture, we might understand the problem and come up with a solution. However, even while faced with problems or supposed inferiority, the other important question to ask is, what is the United States doing right to try and maintain its lead?

Early History of Education

To understand any education ranking and make sense of it, one should understand the history of education, the reasons for testing and what testing means at the human level and to society. In a previous era when men were more commonly categorized as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, the human language was not as developed as it is now; one can suggest that there was no formal writing system except maybe for some symbols for daily use.

As a hunter, one of the man's duties was not only to hunt for food, but also to educate subsequent generations. He educated by passing on his hunting skills to his young male children. Education was conducted by observation and then participation. The adult male hunter brought young boys to the hunt. At first, the young boys watched the skills and techniques of the adult male. Eventually, the young boys took over when it was their time.

For the woman, it was her job to pass on her skills to the young girls of the society. These perhaps included tool making, child rearing, and food preparation. At this early time of human existence, the main goal of education was to pass on skills for survival. Tests in the traditional sense were non-existent because the main goal of education was to produce high-quality hunters. During the agricultural period, men learned how to grow crops and herd animals for meat, skin, and milk. During this period, there were significant incremental changes to education. Survival skills alone were not enough.

Among other skills, one needed to be familiar with weather patterns, crop cultivation, harvesting, and animal gestation. For the women during this period, the production of clothes took off to a new level and cooking crops and animal parts became more complicated processes. Then came the dawn of early civilizations where distinct writing systems were invented, and during which time knowledge of writing, reading, signs, and symbols was a status marker in the community.

In addition to reading and writing, religious studies and ethics were introduced. In ancient China, for example, Confucianism became part of this education. Survival skills were pushed to the sidelines, as they became obsolete in ballooning societies. The new norm was for someone to have a special skill beneficial to the community, like masonry or soldiery. The higher part of the education system such as political, religious, and philosophical arenas were reserved for the wealthy and privileged. As societies changed, modes of education changed in tandem. Suddenly, there was more information to absorb, and competition regarding who could retain the most information began—and the idea of quantitative testing took off. At the time, it was becoming one of the objective ways to determine who was at an advantage.

Education in the Industrial Age

Moving forward, there were a number of educational changes in the Industrial Age. During this period, there was an increase in white-collar jobs such as accounting, banking, and law among others. Although still needed, physical skills like animal husbandry were no longer valued as much as they used to be. However, like blue-collar jobs, white-collar jobs were also subject to competition. This competition started at school in the form of attempting to attain the highest grade amongst one’s peers. Since these early days, society has come to grow on the notion that the higher the grade, the greater the chance of professional success.

We do not have to look any further than our own experiences for examples of this. Can we still remember what our parents told us about school and education? Some details may differ from case to case, but typical parental advice supports the notion that if one does well in school and graduates from an esteemed university, one will find a good job. It is almost engrained in our psyche that good grades will subsequently guarantee us success in life.

When it comes to written examinations, the theory that I have most commonly encountered is similar; that the more of a subject matter one memorizes and retains, the better one will perform in answering test questions. Good test scores are associated with diplomas and soon after, professional careers. Subsequently, being a professional presumably guarantees a good and comfortable life. This might have been relatively true generations ago, but it is not the case anymore. Everything was relatively simple back then, unlike today, where knowledge is readily available and the world is much more interconnected.

Our World Now

To understand what system of education we should endorse, first, we need to understand what kind of world we are living in right now. In the United States, a generation ago, a greater number of women were mothers who stayed at home with their children while their fathers worked. The salary of an average American father was enough to sustain a typical American family.

This is not the case anymore. Due to gradual economic hardships, the typical American father and mother are both working full time. Soon afterwards came the age of the computer and Internet revolution. It literally changed humanity and the world. Before, when one wanted to get information or an education, one had to go to school or at least to a public library. Now, with computers and Internet at our disposal, knowledge is not only easy to access but is also very organized. Ironically, even with the advent of computers and Internet (which should theoretically make the acquisition of a good education cheaper) college education has never been so expensive. In an October 26, 2011 article in Bloomberg News, John Hechinger and Janet Lorin write, "Tuition and fees at US public universities soared 8.3 percent this year, twice the rate of inflation, to an average US$8,244, a College Board report found. Nonprofit private college costs rose 4.5 percent to US$28,500." At first, the problem would appear to lie in these high tuition fees for universities, which would decrease the supply of people with college degrees.

However, the bigger problem lies in student loans that make it easy for students to get mired in heaps of debt. Additionally, US college graduates will find themselves competing with other graduates in a bad world economy. With huge economical changes in China and other East Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia in recent decades, manufacturing jobs are being shipped overseas. White-collar jobs are not particularly immune to this phenomenon. Due to the advent of Internet communication technologies, call-center jobs are being outsourced to countries with cheap labor like India and the Philippines. It is also possible now for a surgeon to operate on anybody a thousand miles away with Internet connection and the right medical equipment.

What is Wrong?

Failed educational policies are not unique to the United States. They make up a ubiquitous phenomenon found in all nations. There are several fundamental mistakes in the current educational system and problems regarding our mentality towards education around the world. First is the lack of critical thinking. Though schools often engage students in problem solving activities, these do not really involve "real world" critical thinking.

In a 2008 article on the Parenting Science website, anthropologist Dr. Gwen Dewar makes the case that our schools do not promote critical thinking. She cites a scene from Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Playhouse” in which a bow was put inside one of three boxes. Each box was of a different size, small, medium, and large. The bow in question was about the size of the medium sized box. Minnie asked, which box might contain the bow? The obvious answer would seem to be either the medium box or large box. However, Dewar makes the point that the bow could have been folded and compressed to fit into the small box. In the real world, do we really assume that we put objects inside containers that perfectly match the sizes of the objects? This type of thinking is literally keeping our children from thinking outside the box. Solutions, especially in the real world, are not always black and white or found in the multiple-choice category. More often than not, solutions must be made with compromises.

Secondly, the assumption that good grades and a diploma equal success is problematic. Nothing could be further from the truth. How do we measure success? How do we define success? The word “success” is subjective. However, most people categorize their definitions of success into two major types. The first type is the success of wealth. The individual aspires to hold wealth much beyond the average person. These aspirations can range from occupational goals (think Wall Street bankers) to leisurely ones (a big house is not enough without a yacht and a private jet). The second type is the success of comfort. The individual aspires to gain enough wealth to live comfortably, be able to provide a stable lifestyle for his or her family, buy a house, and send the children through college. Overall, the assumption that good grades and a diploma will guarantee any type of success is not true and realistic. Indeed, the case can be made that successful people received good grades in school. But then again, even many financially successful people, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, did not earn college degrees.

Third, there is too much emphasis on exams rather than on the learning process. In the current educational system, anyone can earn a bachelor's degree by memorizing enough information to pass university exams. Sometimes, too much stress and pressure in this form have led to cases of student suicide. We are putting whole systems of social and personal values on exams when we should not put any value on exams at all. Many written exams are nothing more than a measure of how much an individual has memorized in a given period of time. It is by no means indication of knowledge or understanding of a subject.

In the United States, college students have abused medications that will help them focus and absorb more information before an exam. Is this really what we want for our children?

Fourth, there is a big disconnect between what we teach our children and what vital skills they need in this modern society. The subjects that are being taught in schools emphasize standardization rather than specialization. The one-size-fits-all policy still prevails in most US schools now. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act passed during George W. Bush’s presidency, rewards and punishes schools and teachers based on overall scores. Rather than focusing on and encouraging the quality of education, there is an overwhelming emphasis on getting all students to obtain a standardized level of scores.

Finally, the biggest problem of all is the lack of competition. The late economist, Milton Friedman’s statement that we should treat our education like we treat our companies is still correct to this day. In order for education to improve, it must be subject to competition. This allows weak schools to stop lingering and the better ones to prevail. However, because of governmental bureaucracy, public schools are not able to innovate and experiment, as they should.

What is the United States Doing Right?

Even with the problems in education mentioned above, how is it that the United States can still come on top economically and technologically against the top countries on the PISA list? The short answer is that standardized tests mean nothing. These tests never had meant much before and still cannot determine the success of a nation. The real world and our societies are much more complex than the act of memorizing some pages from a book. The common notion is that when a nation is comprised of many intelligent people who do well on exams, these people can fuel the social and technological innovations for that country.

This may be true but only to a certain degree. It does not guarantee superiority over other nations. For example, Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the US, but in terms of economic prowess, Cuba cannot hope to match any major US city. Another big factor to US supremacy is immigration. A lot of talented people in the United States are immigrants. Smart and talented people come to the United States because they know it is the land of opportunity. There is no bigger market in the world. Among some of the most famous examples of American successes are immigrants: Sergey Brin, Madeleine Albright, Joseph Pulitzer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Albert Einstein. Though US immigration policies are far from perfect, they are lax enough to attract the brightest people who carry great ideas with them into the country.

However, the United States can do more by relaxing and improving the conditions of immigration further. A good area for improvement is to better the H-1B visa category, the type of visa issued for high tech jobs and other specialized fields like medicine, business, science, and the arts.

The United States can start by eliminating the quota it sets each year. Why should the United States limit the influx of intelligent people who can contribute to the country’s success? One of the main arguments for the current quota is that it helps limit competition that can be harmful to non-immigrant US graduates. However, I argue that competition is a good thing because it raises standards and quality. Parents should have a larger role in shaping educational decisions for their children, with very minimal to no government involvement. The same goes for individuals who have the power to make educational decisions for themselves. We must see and realize that current quantitative test results are just illusions. I am not suggesting we should eliminate testing altogether. However, we should use tests and exams to improve quality and not to measure the quantity of information that has to be memorized.