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Most see U.S. educational system as world leader

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on December 6, 2012)

I recently returned from a trip to China, where I was part of a delegation to dedicate a new Vanderbilt U.S.-China Center for Education and Culture in the city of Guangzhou. The center is a joint project with South China Normal University and Sun Yat-Sen University, with seed funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Luce Foundation and the U.S. State Department.

The center will house resource libraries and host academic lectures and cultural performances to promote mutually beneficial academic exchange and learning. It is an exciting venture that led me to reflect about how the U.S. looks when viewed from abroad.

In particular, I found myself thinking about our educational system. We tend to worry a great deal about the quality and competitiveness of U.S. schools, to the point that we sometimes lose sight of the favorable ways in which our system stacks up internationally.

For example, the U.S. is an international leader in providing services for children with special needs. We do this not only for children with learning or developmental disabilities, but for highly talented children, as well. Education in the U.S. recognizes exceptional learning needs at both ends of the continuum and strives to meet them.

Our system also nurtures creativity, problem solving and critical thinking. In a knowledge-based economy, many countries aspire to emulate these qualities, especially in higher education. International students compete heavily to attend U.S. universities, which are widely viewed as the best in the world.

Creating choices

Thanks to a wealth of empirical information, we know more about what needs improvement than ever before. The data we gather helps us revise curricula, improve teacher preparation, leverage principal leadership and generate strategies for reform. On the whole, U.S. educators are open to innovation. Both policymakers and practitioners look to create educational choices for families and seek to improve schools continuously.

Through education research, Vanderbilt is helping to develop the new edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment) which will enable states to confirm the readiness of novice teachers. We created the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education (VAL-ED) to evaluate school leaders. Our National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools is experimenting with ways to transfer educational strategies in successful urban high schools to others that continue to struggle.

Seen from abroad, public education in the U.S. is optimistic, inclusive and egalitarian. We believe that all children should be educated to a high standard and that they have the capacity to succeed. While it is true that there are inequities we must work even harder to reduce, periodic tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Nation’s Report Card) indicate that nationally, student achievement in most subjects (including math, science and reading) is either holding steady or gradually improving.

Looking homeward, I found myself feeling positive about our direction, and grateful for what we already have.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart dean of education and human development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean.