October 22, 2010

American Education: The Best and the Boredest

Last night, I met a young German student named Cornelius who was visiting his cousin, my friend Jake for the past month.

Fresh out of school and about to start his first real-world job, Cornelius tried explaining the German school system to me. Here's the gist, keeping in mind that I may have lost some things in translation.

In Germany, after 4th grade, children are separated by perceived potential and placed in different types of schools based on predicted outcome. The students with lower academic records go to trade school. The more successful students go to higher levels of education.

Now, they're not eternally stuck at the age of 10. Germany understands that they can guess wrong. And students who do well at trade school can move up. But, it still sounds really weird and creepy, doesn't it?

We used to do the same thing. In the 60s, when Kennedy said, "We're going to the moon." here's what we did. We tried to find geniuses. We plucked our perceived best and brightest out of high school and sent them to specialized schools. Gave them great teachers, so they could go help NASA. And we got to the moon.

"But why doesn't my kid get the best teachers? That's why they're not as smart!" the populace cried out. It didn't seem fair, and it wasn't.

So, today, the perceived best and brightest might get plucked out for an hour a day to learn slightly more advanced math. And for the rest of the day, they're stuck with the other kids their age, bored out of their minds, based on a weird assumption that like-ages equate to like-talents.

So, here's my question. Is our educational system designed to help geniuses create the future, or to help the average kid follow instructions?