Friday, April 1, 2011

America: the Land of the "Free to Fall Behind"?

This is a paper that I wrote this semester for my Composition II class. Let me know what you think!
     America is a unique country with unique expectations: “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” No other nation is like America, and America is often esteemed as a safe haven to those in other countries. Andrea Bukvova, a foreign exchange student from the Czech Republic, once told me that “America is the last best place for the world. It's a belief to all of us that if something goes wrong in our country, we can always go to America.” America is a place of hope and freedom, a country where any individual can pursue the “American Dream” and achieve anything that they set their mind to. Yet, are our own adolescents carrying this American mindset and pressing on to be all they can be? A comparison of American high school students to students of other world powers reveals that America is falling behind academically, which may be a result of a lack of emphasis on the importance of graduating from high school.

1. How does America Compare?
     America's high school students trail behind students of significant world power countries. Andrea, the foreign exchange student whom I mentioned previously, is not only an excellent example of how foreign students excel academically in comparison to our own, but also a person dear to my heart. Andrea Bukvova (affectionately referred to as “Andy”) lived with my family in Montana during the 2008-09 academic school year. While living with us, Andy attended a Christian private school in our hometown at a junior status. During her year, there were several other foreign exchange students in her class, primarily from Germany. The astounding thing I realized throughout that year is that even though the foreign students were attempting to learn the material in English as their second language, they ranked higher in their classes than nearly all of their American peers. During her year, Andy not only maintained straight A's, but she and the other exchange students placed as the top students in many of their classes, including anatomy and mathematics.
     In addition to what I've observed personally, there are several studies that reveal America is falling behind other countries. One such study was done by The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) on a collection of fifteen-year-old students from 65 participating countries, encompassing “between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each country” (“What Pisa Is”, par. 1-3). Surprisingly, America comes in 16th place in this global line-up, falling behind not only many Asian and advanced European countries, but our Canadian neighbors as well, who came in sixth place. (PISA 2009 Results) When comparing the United States, it is evident that America isn't at the same academic level as the countries with whom we are competing, such as China, Japan, and Switzerland (PISA 2009 Results).

2. Why is America falling behind?
     A potential reason for America's lax educational standing is a lack of high school students' personal motivation and a lack of emphasis on the importance of education. High school students often skip school, disregard their homework, or focus more on friends than studies. Unfortunately, while skipping school and procrastinating in their homework are extremely common in High School, even more distressing is that students are dropping out of school in hordes. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the drop-out rate is worse than we would like to believe, surmounting to the statistic that “about seven thousand students drop out every school day” (1). I think that high school students may view high school graduation as unimportant because, instead of attending class for four years to receive their diploma, they can take one test and receive a General Educational Diploma (or GED), which is often upheld as an equivalent to the diploma. With students thinking, “Why waste four years of life going to school if I can get an equivalent in much less time?”, we as a society need to have an answer for them. Even if it may seem feasible for a high school drop-out to achieve the same ultimate outcome as their graduating peers by receiving a GED, there is a distinct difference in income between graduates and high school drop-outs. According to Cecilia Rouse, Professor of Economics at Princeton University, the average high school drop-out earns “over the course of his or her lifetime … about $260,000 less than a high school graduate” (qtd. in Alliance for Education, 2). In addition to the personal consequences, high school students dropping out also affects the entire country. According to the Alliance for Education, “If the United States‘ likely dropouts from the Class of 2006 had graduated, the nation could have saved more than $17 billion in Medicaid ... over the course of those young people‘s lifetimes.” (2) Students should attend school because both the amount of what they can learn and the education process itself is important for not only their own future, but for their family, their community, and their nation.

     In 1997, Gordon M. Ambach, then-executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, expressed his concern for America's Education: “...We're not keeping up with the countries that are going to be our major competitors in the future” (qtd in Fiske Par. 9). As a start, we need to be encouraging our adolescents and stress the importance of completing high school for the benefit of themselves and the world around them. In America, students have the unique opportunity to be all that they can be if they set their mind to it, and that begins with devoting themselves to education and receiving their high school diploma.
     When Andy returned to the Czech Republic in June of 2009, the school board of her high school would not accept the year spent in America as quality education and held her back from moving on with her class. In her hometown of Olomouc, Czech Republic, Andy was not a significantly outstanding student in comparison her European classmates, yet when placed in an American educational setting she shone brighter than her American peers. If Americans don't take education seriously, others will.

Works cited:
Alliance for Education. High School Dropouts in America. N.p., February 2009. Web. 11 Mar. 2011
Fiske, Edward B. “Insights Into Why U.S. Students Lag Behind in Global Academic 'Horse Race'.” The New York Times 11 Feb. 1997.: Web. 11 Mar. 2011
Programme for International Student Assessment. Comparing countries’ and Economies’ performance. EOCD, 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2011


  1. Very good points all around, Leslie. Very sad as well.

    I think your comment about the GED is significant. Did your research say anything about how salaries compare between GED receivers and high school diploma receivers? Or are the former whom you refer to as "high school dropouts?"

    I think the biggest problem is that education isn't "cool." The public education system does nothing to help that, either. I attended a private school in 7th and 8th grades (1974-1976). There they taught high-school-equivalent French & Latin classes in those two grades. They taught in 7th grade grammar concepts that the public school system didn't even get to until the 11th grade.

    It's only gone downhill from those "golden" days.

    The solution, as always, begins in the home. If parents don't care enough about their children to follow their education & encourage their children — and be loving enough to those children that they respond to their parents' love — there isn't much any school system can do.

  2. Nice job. Don't have any concrete stats or studies to refer to, but personal observation seems even over the past 3 decades the rejection of God in the marketplace of ideas and the ensuing breakdown of the family has contributed greatly to this breakdown in student motivation. We do therapeutic foster care and I'll often talk to our kids who have been cut lose by mom or dad or both about having some vision for their own future. Their reply? "What future?" In public schools I have seen more and more young people no longer living with their moms or dads, but with grandparents, aunts or even neighbors. Keep writing.

    gary vanriper
    camden, ny

  3. That's just so terrifyingly true. I've never been to America and I have no idea how it looks like there, nevertheless from what I have heard, although it's your national identity to be free and indipendent, I feel like you guys can't cope with yourselves anymore. Young people wanna be cool and trendy and live fast and don't really think about what is going to happen in the future because they don't care, just because they do not have to. I totally agree with Joe Sewell, it all depends on parents. If parents don't encourage their kids enough or if kids don't see what their parents achieved and how education was important to their parents and so how important it should be to them, where do they get their motivation then, huh? I mean, my mom has a master's degree, my dad has 2 master's degrees, they both have good jobs and are good and loving people and they are so encouraging and they are always there for me whenever I need help either with my school or in my personal life. My point is, EVERYONE GET BACK TO SCHOOL SO ONE DAY YOU CAN BE A GOOD EXAMPLE TO YOUR CHILDREN!!! :)

    Here in the Czech republic skipping school isn't that easy, in most high schools students cannot miss more then 25% lessons of any class, otherwise we have to take a big exam in front of a school committee.

    A Czech friend of mine was in France as an exchange student and she said that an American guy had the worst marks in English class from all of the students there. I've noticed many young native English speakers (and not only Americans) keep slowly destroying the English language... When I see them make mistakes in grammar and hear them say unto me things like, "I will let you to do...", it's freaking me out. It wasn't until after McDonald's advertising campaign, "I'm lovin' it" when everyone started speaking like I'm lovin' this, I'm likin' this, I'm wantin' to do that,... Sigh. It's so bad.

    So thank you very much for this, Leslie! Keep writing! Even one person can change the world! :)