I know very little about education in the USA but that doesnt usually stop anyone expressing an opinion about education, so heres a few thoughts from across the pond from someone who is really trying not to join in

I was involved in a discussion the other day about "Dumbing Down". One of the conclusions was that there is always a view that once, long ago, things were better; everyone could spell impossibly long words and multiply huge numbers without using fingers and toes. Everyone can point to something that is missing; they just fail to point out what has been added. It is the cry of those who are part of the establishment, waving goodbye to the days when their point of view prevailed.

Science teaching has moved on leaps and bounds in a generation. Non-specialist teachers often had rather vague ideas about science subjects and were allowed to teach however they felt best. Provision was patchy and learning resources outside the most respected schools were often scarce. For all those people who can talk about their inspiring teachers of Latin or history there were also many that cant. Mathematics was geared to the brightest in the class and left many by the wayside. Children were not taught about computers at school because they were not part of daily life. The teaching of the canon of classics has had to take less time in the curriculum to make room for new areas of study. Teaching methods now focus on process at the expense of content, spending time acting out a play, rather than sitting in rows reading a paragraph at a time. I was always bored and (quietly) intolerant, hoping the slowest reader would get a move on.

One scientific paper I read raised the idea that it is only this generation that has relied so heavily upon literacy. It was possible to live a happy and productive life without reading until very recently, natural selection hasnt had very long to place literacy above strength or fighting skills in the gene pool.

Of course, I was saddened by the newspaper article spotted by wseiber in his posting in "Words from newspapers of the world". It told about a school in the North East of England with very high levels of deprivation. It is, indeed, always possible to find such sad stories. It seems that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The idea of "trickle down" where as one part of society get richer it has an effect on the whole of society doesnt seem to work. I suspect that what really happens is that those who have not are made painfully aware of what how much they are missing. Lavish entertaining and foreign travel might not matter too much but a child needs not to be hungry and to have parents who care that their needs are at least partly met. Those who's lives are blighted by the curse of drug addiction aren't always the best at prioritising the use of their resources, where they exist. It is sad and we must keep trying to improve things.

So as part of the haves rather than the have nots I feel that the state-provided education my children are getting in their leafy suburb isnt at all bad. They are encouraged to debate ideas rather than sit back and resign themselves to the rule that their teacher knows best. Some old fashioned teaching methods have been reclaimed. They are expected to learn spellings by applying rules, rather than simply rote-learning or, even worse, not learning spelling at all. They have had to learn multiplication tables and are expected to do a mental maths test every morning (aged 9 & 11), they say its quite fun. I asked the head-teacher why they read so few classics. Her reply was that there is so much strong childrens writing around these days that they would be considered to be classics of the future (the jury is still out on that one). I dont think the teaching of grammar is all that strong but I dont think I was taught grammar at all well. I learnt more about the structure of English by studying other languages than by studying my own language in any detail. Their project work has been quite fascinating and they have done much more than skim the surface of the subjects they have tackled using the power of the library (mainly out of date books telling them that the economy of Australia relies on sheep farming) and the Internet (CIA world fact-book 1999 figures with full economic analysis and population statistics).

Here are a couple of points from people I know who have exchanged cultures:
I have some relatives who swapped with some English lecturers from California about five years ago. They said they were glad to come back (except for the swimming pool and the sunshine). They thought that students had too strong a say in the USA. Here the teacher gives a mark and that is (largely) that. In the USA the students would complain if the grade was too low and the lecturer would be told to adjust it, rather than the departmental head have to face the student. Their impression was that below grad school, the standards were quite low. At grad school and beyond the standards were very high. They feel now that we are heading the same way they have been told here to give more high grades. A few years ago a First Class Degree was rare, a 2:1 quite rare and a 2:2 considered to be the norm. Now there are very more First Class and Upper Seconds distributed. A friend who moved her children between Canada and Germany felt that the German teachers had a lot more power over the pupils and were a lot more sparing with their marks. They felt that their children were expected to work a lot harder in Germany but their Canadian education allowed for more creativity and the children were less stressed. A teacher from Chicago recently worked at my childrens school. I asked how the childrens work compared at the same age she said that they were about the same. I suppose that we are all different and all keen to generalise from our own experience without always being aware of the bigger picture.

So Im not joining in. I suspect there is good and bad teaching. There are certainly parents who contribute to their childrens learning and others who dont. There are useful and useless theories put forward by educationalists. There are governments (and parents) willing to fund education to a reasonable level and there are those who fail to provide sufficient resources for whatever reason. All we can ask it that every child gets an opportunity to get an education that enables them to reach their potential, no matter how high.