American Elephants

The First Man On the Moon? Buzz Lightyear!! by The Elephant's Child

I think we are making a vast mistake to let the federal government get its grasping hands on our children’s education. It is one thing for a country to insist that its children receive an education, and quite another to turn the whole thing over to central planning.

Once again, Britain has become a bad example.  This time it’s education, though usually we look to the U.K. for what not to do in the realm of health care.

A study of 2,000 British schoolchildren revealed that one in five kids believe that Buzz Lightyear was the first person to set foot on the moon.  One in twenty believes that Counter Terrorist Jack Bauer was the brains behind the Gunpowder plot that blew up the houses of Parliament. And it’s not just history.

A third did not know that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and one in five thought it was Charles Darwin. Eleven percent thought Isaac Newton discovered fire and Albert Einstein was Frankenstein’s brother.  One in twenty thought Christopher Columbus discovered liposuction, not America.

Twelve percent of kids thought the battle of Britain took place in space, and one in six think Darth Vader’s Deathstar is the farthest planet from Earth.

One in six failed to identify US President Barack Obama, claiming he was Mr. T from the A-Team, but a whopping 65 percent knew Britney Spears shaved her head.

We laugh at these sad misconceptions, but if the same survey were conducted in our own country, I shudder to think of the results.   It is sad that kids know more about celebrity culture than about history and world events.  Popular culture is very dominant, and the TV is more ubiquitous in the home than good history books.

The British research was carried out to mark the launch of the What on Earth? Wallbook which details and illustrates historical events from the big bang to the present day.  So one might take the survey with at least a tiny grain of salt, as its purpose is to sell the new “wallbook.”

However, it was not too long ago that I saw a small article noting that Winston Churchill  had been removed from the British curriculum. Go figure.

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For comparative international statistics on the performance of school children, see the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reports from the OECD:,3355,en_2649_35845621_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

I challenge you to find any (inverse) correlation between performance and the degree of central government in designing or directing the country’s educational system. Of course, the devil is in the details, such as in how politicized is the control, how much discretion teachers are allowed, and the roles played by standards.

One poor performance of the U.S. education system — its appalling record of teaching proficiency in other languages — is itself a problem that closes the country’s eyes to good ideas in other countries. Since few reporters (or analysts for think tanks) are fluent in other languages, they naturally turn to the English-speaking United Kingdom for (bad) examples, be they in health policy, educational policy, or some other area of policy.

So, yes, if you always look to the UK, you are going to find poor performance in a lot of areas. On the other hand, their military is pretty darned good, all things considered.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

And your examples of successful central planning are?


Comment by The Elephant's Child

Here is a table showing scores by country

The United States does not rank any higher than 15th, and in two out of the three categories ranks lower than 20th.

Most of the top-scoring countries — Finland, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan — have established national core curriculums. Of course, several of these countries are relatively small (the population of Greater Philadelphia), so the fact that they have “central planning” as you call it may not be all that different than what takes place in a large metropolitan county in the United States.

My point is, there are many ways that national governments intervene in the education system, and the fact that there may be a national curriculum, for example, does not necessarily equate with disasterous results. It all depends on the mix of policies that are the most appropriate for each country’s population, traditions and geography. Simply pointing to the UK and generalizing from their experience is anectdotal, and not very enlightening.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

I should add that France, with a population of slightly larger than 60 million people, has an extremely centralized education system. In both reading literacy and science comes out just barely ahead of the United States. In mathematics, on which the French system puts a great amount of stress, its students’ scores rank 13th, against the 24th for their U.S. counterparts. That does not prove anything, except that “central direction” does not look to have undermined their ability to score at least as well as US students on the PISA exam. Whether French students could do even better under a different system, one less centrally directed, is of course the unanswered question.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

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