How We Dummies Succeed

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

If you're looking for the action in education, forget the Ivy League. Talk instead to Anthony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. It has six campuses and 70,000 students taking classes in everything from remedial English to computer networking. With about 12 million students, the nation's 1,200 community colleges help answer this riddle: Why do Americans do so badly on international educational comparisons and yet support an advanced economy?

At this back-to-school moment, the riddle is worth pondering. Those dismal comparisons aren't new. In 1970, tests of high school seniors in seven industrial countries found that Americans ranked last in math and science. Today's young Americans sometimes do well on these international tests, but U.S. rankings drop as students get older. Here's a 2003 study of 15-year-olds in 39 countries: In math, 23 countries did better; in science, 18. Or consider a 2003 study of adults 16 to 65 in six advanced nations: Americans ranked fifth in both literacy and math.

In trying to explain the riddle, let me offer a distinction between the U.S. school system and the American learning system .

The school system is what most people think of as "education." It consists of 125,000 elementary and high schools and 2,500 four-year colleges and universities. It has strengths (major research universities) and weaknesses -- notably, lax standards. One reason that U.S. students rank low globally is that many don't work hard. In 2002, 56 percent of high school sophomores did less than an hour of homework a night.

The American learning system is more complex. It's mostly post-high school and, aside from traditional colleges and universities, includes the following: community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books. To take a well-known example: The for-profit University of Phoenix started in 1976 to offer workers a chance to finish their college degrees. Now it has about 300,000 students (half taking online courses and half attending classes in 163 U.S. locations). The average starting age: 34.

The American learning system has, I think, two big virtues.

First, it provides second chances. It tries to teach people when they're motivated to learn -- which isn't always when they're in high school or starting college. People become motivated later for many reasons, including maturity, marriage, mortgages and crummy jobs. These people aren't shut out. They can mix work, school and training. A third of community college students are over 30. For those going to traditional colleges, there's huge flexibility to change and find a better fit. A fifth of those who start four-year colleges and get degrees finish at a different school, reports Clifford Adelman of the Education Department. Average completion time is five years; many take longer.

Second, it's job-oriented. Community colleges provide training for local firms and offer courses to satisfy market needs. Degrees in geographic information systems (the use of global positioning satellites) are new. There's been an explosion in master's degrees -- most of them work-oriented. From 1971 to 2004, MBAs are up 426 percent, public administration degrees, 262 percent, and health degrees, 743 percent. About a quarter of college graduates now get a master's. Many self-help books are for work -- say, "Excel for Dummies." There are about 150 million copies of the "For Dummies" series in print.

Up to a point, you can complain that this system is hugely wasteful. We're often teaching kids in college what they should have learned in high school -- and in graduate school what they might have learned in college. Some of the enthusiasm for more degrees is crass credentialism. Some trade schools prey cynically on students' hopes and spawn disappointment. But these legitimate objections miss the larger point: The American learning system accommodates people's ambitions and energies -- when they emerge -- and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

In Charlotte, about 70 percent of the recent high school graduates at Central Piedmont Community College need remedial work in English or math. Zeiss thinks his college often succeeds where high schools fail. Why? High school graduates "go out in the world and see they have no skills," he says. "They're more motivated." The mixing of older and younger students also helps; the older students are more serious and focused.

This fragmented and mostly unplanned learning system is a messy mix of government programs and private business. In some ways it compares favorably to other countries' more controlled governmental systems. Of course, that isn't an excuse for not trying to improve our schools. We would certainly be better off if more students performed better. Nor should it inspire complacency. "Other countries are picking up these models of community colleges and online learning," says Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a research group.

But the American learning system partially explains how a society of certified dummies consistently outperforms the test scores. Workers and companies develop new skills as the economy evolves. The knowledge that is favored (specialized and geared to specific jobs) often doesn't show up on international comparisons that involve general reading and math skills. As early as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans are addicted to practical, not abstract, knowledge. That's still true.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company