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American children are drowning in self-esteem

American children are drowning in self-esteem

The Economist’s Washington correspondent wonders why his offspring are being taught swimming so well and maths so badly

The Economist’s Washington correspondent wonders why his offspring are being taught swimming so well and maths so badly

James Astill | October 24th 2016

To sit by our local pool in Bethesda, Maryland, at swimming-lesson time, as I do every Saturday morning, is to marvel at American ambition, positivity and derring-do. Those qualities are apparent in the enthusiasm with which my children are whooped into the water by their relentlessly upbeat instructors. They are there in the short shrift the instructors give to any whingeing. My youngest was just three when he started at the pool and liable to protest; he got a lot of warm-hearted sympathy, but no let-up. “C’mon dude, stop complaining, let’s get on with it!”

Yet my children’s experience of school in America is in some ways as indifferent as their swimming classes are good, for the country’s elementary schools seem strangely averse to teaching children much stuff. According to the OECD’s latest international education rankings, American children are rated average at reading, below average at science, and poor at maths, at which they rank 27th out of 34 developed countries. At 15, children in Massachusetts, where education standards are higher than in most states, are so far behind their counterparts in Shanghai at maths that it would take them more than two years of regular education to catch up.

This is not for lack of investment. America spends more on educating its children than all but a handful of rich countries. Nor is it due to high levels of inequality: the proportion of American children coming from under-privileged backgrounds is about par for the OECD. A better reason, in my snapshot experience of American schooling, is a frustrating lack of intellectual ambition for children to match the sporting ambition that is so excellently drummed into them in our local swimming pool and elsewhere.

My children’s elementary school, I should say, is one of America’s better ones, and in many ways terrific. It is orderly, friendly, well-provisioned and packed with the sparky offspring of high-achieving Washington, DC, commuters. Its teachers are diligent, approachable and exude the same relentless positivity as the swimming instructors. We feel fortunate to have them. Yet the contrast with the decent London state school from which we moved our eldest children is, in some ways, dispiriting.

After two years of school in England, our six-year-old was so far ahead of his American peers that he had to be bumped up a year, where he was also ahead. This was partly because American children start regular school at five, a year later than most British children; but it was also for more substantive reasons.

Too many of my eldest son’s maths lessons consist of ingenious ways to relearn what seems obvious. I never imagined there were so many different ways to think about simple addition; but my son could add up already. He loves to read and write. But his English homework consists of exercises in arranging piles of words into groups; he considers it pointless.

At the heart of the problem is an educational ethos that prizes building self-esteem over academic attainment. This is based on a theory that self-confidence leads to all manner of other virtues, including academic achievement, because children who feel good about themselves will love learning – right?

Not entirely. There are clearly advantages to the American approach: I expect my children will be better public speakers than they would otherwise have been. But there is no compelling evidence that self-esteem is linked to actual achievement, as opposed to a woolly feeling of self-worth. In a study of eight countries, American children came top at thinking they were good at maths, but bottom at maths. For Korean children, the inverse was true: they considered themselves poorer at maths than the children of any other country, but were the best. The OECD study, similarly, found that American children believe they are good at maths and, indeed, are adept at very simple sums; but give them something halfway tricky and they struggle.

This is perverse. The self-esteem movement is drenched in the language of mutual respect; yet encouraging in children an inflated idea of their accomplishments is not respectful at all. It is delusional. 

Why, you may ask, does the self-esteem culture not riddle American sports as it does American schools? The answer is that it does, in the form of an all-must-have prizes attitude; but competition mitigates the effect of that. And in my children’s swimming lesson, the most important compe­ti­tion is with the water itself. If their instructors had focused on making them feel good about swimming, instead of on making them swim, they could have drowned.

6 Readers' comments

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richardpphelps - November 20th 2016

With a new North American correspondent, hopefully The Economist's coverage of US education issues will benefit. The Economist runs a story about US education a few to several times each year. But, unfortunately, the expertise sourcing the past several years has been quite narrow. Most expert opinion has come from just a tiny slice of conservative thinktankdom--primarily Checker Finn's Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and allied associates. There is much to be learned from the other 99.99% of US education observers.

leslief - November 1st 2016

The article wasn't about public/private education, so I'm not sure that the question needed to be addressed. Worth noting though that 10% of USA school students attend private school (CAPE figures), in comparison to 7% in the UK. In any event, the author is comparing state schools in the UK with public schools in the USA.

travva - October 28th 2016

Mr. Astill hits the nail squarely on its head. What may be surprising is that his experiences and conclusions are not new. They resonate with my own observations at the time of moving to the US from the UK in 1970. Although there's much danger in generalizing populations and cultures, it seemed very clear that the general level of respect for, and enjoyment of, knowledge and learning in the UK at the time was much more in evidence than in the US. As a demonstration of this, there was no US equivalent of 'Brain of Britain' or 'University Challenge' on any prime time radio or TV channel - 'Jeopardy' is hardly a match. While this may be a simplistic data point, a lesser respect and enjoyment for the acquisition of knowledge pervades US society all the way through to parents' expectations and teacher motivations. Through generations, the result has been greater emphasis on the development of qualities that reflect attributes presumed to have brought success during the development of the country - determination; problem solving; collaboration; competitiveness; service. The acquisition of knowledge and learning skills are lower in the pecking order. The accelerating advances of modern technology now call into question which attributes are better suited to cope. It is apparent that the most appropriate balance has not been achieved, in either the US or other OECD countries.

AD LAND - October 28th 2016

Around 15 years ago I met a Belgian national who was in the US on a three year assignment. His sentiments on the education his children were getting here in the US were similar to those of Mr. Astill. He was pleased with their increased self-confidence and sense of individualism but saw them falling behind Belgian standards, particularly in math and science, and felt they would be at least one year and possibly two behind when they returned to Belgium..

Alice McVeigh - October 27th 2016

As it happens, I know a lot about the DC suburbs (I grew up in McLean VA) and the difference between them and the UK system of education (have lived in London for decades). I find this article a little facile, however. Finnish schools start far later than in America, for example, yet the Finns excel in every subject far more than the British - so I can't think that the later start can have much to do with it. Second, the author fails to address the prevailing American sense of anti-intellectualism (see Trump, if you can bear to). Instead he chooses to prioritise the touchy-feely 'Yay, you did so well!' of American education as the sole reason for the country's decline in educational standards. As long as we're both bragging about our kids, our only child is currently studying Chinese at Oxford University - and we never - before! - paid a penny for her education, as there are grammar schools in our area. The author has notably failed to consider that the cream of the UK crop DOES INDEED pay for its schooling (sometimes, from an almost obscenely early age). This is far less likely to occur in the USA. In short, the private/non-private question ought also to have been addressed.

andywellis - October 26th 2016

I'm sure I probably benefitted from an above average school, it wasn't something that I concerned myself with at the time. Starting in 7th grade and continuing through high school graduation, we had advanced tracks that became optional. When should it start? Would challenging math(s) in the early years yield better scores? Likely. Would it further accentuate and accelerate the academic divergence between kids with two, educated parents versus those with a single parent working odd hours? I think it would. How much should we care about the kids at the margins (and these are wide margins)? How much should we prioritize homegrown test scores and talent when we can still recruit much of it? I don't know. From the reverse perspective, I live in the UK and have many colleagues with US children in UK schools. Without exception, primary school (6th grade and below or so) in the UK far outshines the US. For some reason, that seems to drop off in later years (though that could be due to social/structural pressures more so than the quality of the education).