Memo to the World: America’s Secret Sauce Isn’t Made in Our Classrooms

By 02/23/2012

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A few weeks ago, a couple of Japanese scholars dropped by the Fordham Institute offices for a visit. This happens every so often—delegations of foreigners make the Washington ed-policy circuit, seeking a better understanding of America’s schools. As with most Asian visitors I meet, these gentlemen were curious about how we manage to produce so many innovative leaders. They want a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, or a Mark Zuckerberg of their own.

To which I replied: “You’re looking in the wrong place. It has nothing to do with our schools.”

This isn’t meant as a knock on our school system. But from ages zero to eighteen, our young people spend about 9 percent of their lives in class. Isn’t it likely that the other 91 percent contributes more to such attributes as their creativity or willingness to question authority?

I asked my visitors what Japanese adolescents do when they aren’t in school?

“They attend cram school,” was the answer. Uh huh.

American kids, on the other hand, are engaged in all manner of extra-curricular activities: Sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.* If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math class?**

And then there’s the way we parent our kids. For better or worse, if you believe Pamela Druckerman, the author of the much-hyped Bringing up Bebe, U.S. moms and dads are terrible at teaching our kiddos self-discipline and delayed gratification. (Have you ever met an American parent that enforces a no-snacking-between meals policy? The French have no problem saying “Non!”) This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed. On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

The Japanese visitors want to know what’s happening inside our schools. (A few years ago, national officials ordered Japanese schools to instruct kids to challenge authority. Consider the irony.) And for sure, some of our schools teach in ways that encourage such attributes like creative thinking.*** Getting students engaged in their own learning, asking them to solve real problems, getting them to read difficult texts and make sense of them, rather than regurgitate facts—all of this can help at the margins.

But for their sake, I hope my new Japanese friends paid attention to what American kids were doing after school and on the weekends, because that is when our special sauce is made.

*Well, at least a lot of them are. Others are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc. Some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!

– Mike Petrilli

** I’ve long believed that extra-curricular activities are what America’s schools do best—and deserve credit for. This Education Next article by June Kronholz buttresses that view.

*** That’s why this initiative to create an “innovation index” in Massachusetts is so misguided. The impulse is right, but it’s based on the assumption that creative thinking is something that can be taught in school, rather than developed all day (and night) long.

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • Jim says:

    Have to disagree on one point which admittedly is based upon my own upbringing.

    I never had a voice as a child but thats not the way I looked at it. I saw an “authority” that I wanted to be or have one day.

    My relationship with my parents (who loved me as much if not better than most) gave me goals to strive for in life. As simple as wanting to be like them with their knowledge & experience to as complicated as wanting to be an authority figure in some way which came from earning it.

    Telling kids they have immediate rights leads to entitlement which ensures a steady flow of reality tv for the next century. Not a good thing. Kids don’t know how to earn anything thanks to their scared parents & schools.

    Also, kind of a side note, but all of our technology comes from people that memorized their information. Whether rocket scientists to computer scientists to musicians (Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc all learned Classical music before they developed a new type of music). These are people my generation and older that learned the foundations through memorization and then built everything from computers to rockets to rockNroll (yes, I just repeated myself).

    Those generations were the builders. Today’s generations are merely the administrators of the builder’s dreams & accomplishments.

  • Sean says:

    Considering formal schooling starts at 4, the nine percent is a bit disingenuous.

    Assuming 16 hours of waking time from ages 4-18, and it gets more complex.

    (16 waking hours)(365 days)(14 years) = 81,670 waking hours

    (6 hours in school)(180 days)(14 years of formal schooling) = 15, 120 waking hours in school

    This is closer to twenty percent of their time, or about twice as long as Mr. Petrilli writes. While twenty percent is not overwhelming, either, it does not factor in homework or other academic school-related activities that fall outside the 8:00-2:00 schedule I conservatively earmarked. This calls into question that schooling is helping “at the margins” and I hope refutes that American innovative spirit “has nothing to do with our schools.”

    Also, the talents of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg were formulated and developed by an interaction of thousands of factors. I think it’s cynical (and illogical) to state that formal schooling was not one of them.

  • […] do that gives us an innovative edge and it isn’t found in the classroom. What is it? Read Michael’s article to find out. Posted in Culture, Learning Methods Tags: Extracurricular activities, informal learning, Music, […]

  • kevin says:

    Nearly a decade ago, after media attention highlighted Japanese test scores that were significantly ahead of American students in Math & Science, US educators were inundated with informational sessions and trainings on how we had to “be like them”.

    Ironically, I had the opportunity to meet the Japanese Minister of Education at the Model Schools Conference in Kentucky that same summer. I asked him about ‘how they did it?’. He quickly brushed-off the test score question and made it clear even back then, he was in the US because “his country” wanted their students to be like American students.

    Three things he said at the time, he felt were critical to develop in Japanese students: creativity, to think for themselves and to work cooperatively.

    I think schools–irregardless of the minority of time spent there–CAN have a role in the development of these traits, as should parenting, along with the options and opportunities in the community that we in the US probably take for granted.

    And, if more positive adults and mentors can continue to provide those opportunities–in and out of school, maybe we can continue to serve-up that ‘special sauce’!

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