America’s Academic Long Bus

I spent 7 years teaching in Korea before returning to America to teach for another 7 years. I’ve seen it, experienced it, had time to compare and reflect. And here’s what I’ve seen….

The gap in education between these 2 countries is gaping. Not in the way Americans assume. Most Americans assume that Korean teachers are must be impressively well-trained and talented, which is why Korean students score so high on tests.

But this assumption is false. Korean teachers don’t spend as many hours than American teachers on planning, grading, counseling kids with home issues, communicating with pissed of parents threatening to talk to the principal, differentiating lessons for kids who can‘t keep up or are way ahead, scaffolding lessons so that each melds into the next, using new technology that make lessons more exciting, using new techniques that influence cooperation and hinder bullying, or trying out new books with broader perspectives. Korean teachers don’t do all of this, as American teachers are.

In short, Korean teachers present the information and expect their students to learn it.

Korean teachers don’t have to worry terribly much about pleasing parents. If Koreans students misbehave their parents make sure it never happens again. Korean teachers don’t worry about kids coming to school hungry. Students do come to school hungry but that’s their own problem. Hungry or not they’d better sit down and start studying.

Korean kids come to school exhausted too, just as many American kids do. Whereas American kids come home exhausted because mom was high on drugs and fighting with her boyfriend, or because they stayed up all night watching Cartoon Network, Korean kids come to school exhausted because they studied until 2 in the morning, including Saturday and Sunday.

This is the essential difference. Politicians and parents in America rail on and on about improving the education system, expecting more from teachers. They say that teachers just aren’t teaching as well as they should. They need to jump through more and more hoops, pay for more and more training, maintain yearly certification expectations, and learn how to deal with all of the different types of trauma more and more American kids are experiencing.

If the students grades don’t improve, the teacher is put on probation and if that doesn’t work then he loses his job. He’ll be replaced by another new and inexperienced teacher that will go through the same hoops, under the judgmental eyes of the same untrained but better paid and much more powerful federal, state and local watchdog witch-hunters, and likely with the same results; little to no improvement, probation and then loss of a job.

That’s terribly sad because these teachers, under the thumb of punitive, puritanical and narrow-minded education-police, are likely to be incredibly sincere and talented, and working their tail-ends off to become even better teachers. But its not talent and training that’s lacking in the American schools. It’s cultural values, and what comes with those values.

Korean parents respect education. They place huge amounts of trust and respect on the shoulders of their teachers. Compare this with America, where people believe teachers are lazy and worthless, where parents enjoy getting teachers in trouble and students know they can easily frame any teacher who doesn’t have several cameras and microphones set up in every corner of the classroom.

The Korean value for education insures students come to class prepared. They’ll have spent 3 hours studying for every one hour an American student has. That’s if the American child studies at all. American kids, many of them, come to kindergarten not knowing which way letters go, which way the text reads, which end of a pencil to write with. They’ve never seen a book in their home. Never seen their parents read. Never been to a library except when in need of a warm place to rest. Korean kids generally come to kindergarten already knowing their alphabet in 2 languages, if not 3.

So, in the end it comes down to plain and simple quantity. Not quality. Just time with their noses in the books. Time with pencil to paper. Korean parents don’t worry about a fancy new school with attractive study-pods, cozy-couches and cushions, round tables and open windows. They could care less about a 50 meter swimming pool with a diving well and hot tub, or 3 indoor basketball courts. Smart boards are rare, and every student is not presented with a laptop so he doesn’t have to write or can do his homework on-line.

Equally as important, Korean teachers and parents are not out to get each other. Teamwork is the norm. Korean parents don’t despise teachers but place them on a pedestal. Korean coworkers, mentor teachers and administrators don’t look for ways to get each other in trouble, or one-up themselves, or judge and ostracize one another. Back-biting and bullying between teachers, mentors and administrators is ubiquitous in American schools. The best American teachers avoid the teacher’s lounge as vehemently as any Muslim avoids pork.

Teaching in the states is way more political than cultural. Americans don’t value academics and teamwork. They value things; me and mine. So the classrooms will have more things. Students will have laptops. Teachers will have smart boards. Schools with have vast sports complexes. No one will have a better education because none are willing to put the time in.

On top of that, teachers will be expected to teach more and teach better, and if they don’t succeed, instead of finding out why they’re having a hard time, instead of assigning them a mentor who had years of successful teaching behind them, instead of giving them consistent structure to help them achieve their goals, they’ll be punished, because that seems straightforward and simple, and because that’s how things are done in America.

Ask American parents to have their kids in school 3 hours extra each day and watch as entire communities protest. Cut summer vacation down to 1 month and watch every parent go out and picket; their kids need time to be kids, time to destroy their knees in football, time to cruise from neighborhood to neighborhood on their new bikes, cruise around in their new cars looking for house parties all summer. Time for the latest home entertainment center, the latest tech-toy, the shiniest bling.

For these reasons, because of cultural values emphasizing quick-fixes, threats and punishment, pay-cuts, excuses and blame, American schools will not improve.

I remember Special Education from when I was a child. I remember the short bus. I also remember, looking around at my classmates, thinking it would likely get longer with time. That was one of the first things noticed when I returned home in 2005 – the short bus isn’t short anymore – it’s long. Juvenile delinquents are in force; they set the standards, they’re the main source of peer pressure because they make up the majority.

Smart kids, good kids, kind kids, kids whose parents expect them to behave respectably – they have to act stupid and mouthy in order to fit in. Asian kids are mocked, the masses of other American children are jealous of them because they have 2 parents, who care about them and expect them home every night, with their noses in their books. And so long as this is the norm, Asian countries will continue to outscore America academically, socially and on the job.


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