American Education in Cross-Cultural Perspective

But We Are More Innovative than They Are

It’s happened again, twice in one day! Someone with whom I was talking about Americans’ learning less in school than East Asians replied with a familiar refrain…

“But we are more innovative than they are!”

…and followed that with a string of names – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg – all the usual suspects.

Sometimes I get this variation…

“Americans win most of the Nobel Prizes. How many do East Asians win?”

These responses have long served as Americans’ standard “gotcha” reply when they’re reminded that our students are, comparatively speaking, poorly educated.

Let’s subject them to scrutiny.

Innovative or Well Educated: Choose One

What interests me is this: The way the familiar replies are spoken suggests that the speakers believe it’s better for schools to produce innovative students than to produce well educated students. They seem to be saying, “Well, if we’ve gotta have either one or the other, I’ll take innovative thinkers!”

This sentiment doesn’t only come from people who have no reason to think carefully about education. Dr. Diane Ravitch, the respected educational historian and researcher, is on the record with this: “Let [other nations] have the higher test scores. I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people…”

Perhaps I’d go along if we were doing at least a credible job of educating the great mass of American students. Are we?

Since 1969, our government has kept track of how well children are learning. Visit The numbers you instantly see are the “percentage of students at or above proficient.” Suppose you want to know the percentage of 8th graders doing reasonably well in math. It’s 33%.

If 33% of 8th graders are proficient in math, then 67% are not proficient. And the measuring stick is merely “proficiency,” not mastery.

Now look at all the other percentage figures on that chart. None is above 43%. Thirteen are below 28%! This is the appalling record we’re compiling for millions of children, the record some are saying matters less than our producing a relative handful of world-class innovators.

The Worth of a High School Diploma

In the old days, ambitious young Americans could reasonably assume that, upon arrival at college, their studies would pick up where their high school courses left off. During past decades, that assumption has become sorely misleading.

The percentages of college freshmen obliged to take remedial courses varies greatly. Figures range between 5% and 70%; most are between 35% and 60%. And by the way, the Washington Post reported last year that “45 percent of students enrolled in [remedial college] classes hail from middle- and upper-income families.”

This is a national disgrace. Not just morally, but also in a stark practical way. Dr. Ravitch advises us to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of American youth, yet millions of high school grads clearly cannot do! Is this what we’re defending in the belief that it frees up schools to produce more creative young people?

Hold on a minute. Do schools produce creative young people? And what does “creative” really mean?

Creativity East and West

Of the countless differences between America and East Asia, one concerns what people in the two regions mean when they use words like “creativity” and “innovation.” Chapter 11 of The Drive to Learn discusses this in detail. In a nutshell, these words mean either…

  • flashes of insight, breakthroughs, uniqueness, “edginess,” and challenges to established ways – the Western / American meaning, or…
  • patient effort, elaboration of well-known themes, incremental change, and nuanced views of established ways – the East Asian meaning.

Because Western mindsets and values have enjoyed global visibility and influence for nearly two hundred years, “creativity” and “innovation” have come to be associated with unique breakthroughs. The Nobel Prizes are a case in point.

Let’s wonder what path this discussion would be taking if, instead of the Nobel Prizes, the people of the world had the Jiang Prizes, conceived by an East Asian and awarded in Shanghai. How would the count of American winners compare with the count of East Asian winners?

These differences in mindsets and values are handed down from generation to generation. They are enduring characteristic of American and East Asian cultures. They’d be in place even if schools did not exist. It’s not the schools that, all by themselves, produce young people who are creative in this way or that. Schools are creatures of their containing cultures.

So “But we’re more innovative than they are!” has almost nothing to do with schools! Here’s why:

  • Innovativeness is about the entire culture, of which schools are merely one small component.
  • Academic learning is about what goes on in schools and – as I show in The Drive to Learn – equally about the “receptivity to learning” of the children who attend them.
  • The learning of millions of American students can be improved without sacrificing innovativeness.

The Diane Ravitch quote came from

The statistics about remedial college courses came from

The quote from the Washington Post came from