Recently, a New York Times article about how a culture of poverty — the pathological cycle of sustained racism, isolation, welfare, and absentee fathers — has changed over the decades compelled me to think about the extent to which cultures shape us. But instead of looking at cultures of pathologies, I asked myself as an educator, do we have a “culture of education”? It seems like an easy answer in some ways, but the deeper I dug, the more despondent I grew.

American parents might think, of course we do! As involved parents, they know school comes first: I set a dedicated time and place for homework, I volunteer to help in my child’s school life, and my children are surrounded in an educationally rich environment. We are constantly finding ways to challenge their education and growth. They are well on their way to a top high school or Ivy League college. Congratulations, you have created a culture of education for your child. But that is not what I am talking about.

I am talking about building a collective culture of education.

With the well known news that America is behind its international counterparts in math and science scores (31st out of 40 industrialized countries in science literacy and 35th in math, according to the 2006 PISA report), the perennial difficulty in bridging the achievement gap between White/Asian students and other minorities, and the dwindling of social studies, the arts, and physical education in schools, it becomes clear we do not support a culture of education. In my visit to Guangdong, China, one year ago, I asked a group of adults their perception of America. Essentially, the answers boiled down to what German foreign policy analyst Josef Joffe described in The National Interest, as “both menace and seducer, both monster and model.” In other words, people love our popular culture because of its extravagance and innovation, but at the same time resent what it stands for: imperialism and decay.

Putting politics aside, that culture is what we are known for. Being known for exporting such love/hate commodities like fast food, entertainment, and technology is great for our economy in the short term, but to sustain it in a hyper competitive global arena, education must be reinvested in. So what does it take?

Contrary to popular thinking, education reform is not relegated to just fixing schools, even though it’s the most conspicuous part. To use the more concrete example of losing weight, going on a food diet is the most obvious way to accomplish this difficult task, but it is by no means the sole solution. In fact, exercise, mental discipline, and easy access to affordable healthy foods must all be part of the answer.  Without considering the interplay of all components, success cannot be sustained. In other words, a sustainable culture of healthy living must be created by the individual AND the society.

Interestingly, these values contrast with the group-oriented mentality found in Asian countries and the public-spiritedness of European nations, many of which have ranked higher in international tests of achievement. The importance of education in Asian countries, a byproduct of a pervasive millennia-old Confucian ethic, drives a collective effort that ultimately brings about a culture of education. President Obama, in his 2009 Pacific Rim tour to China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore, lauded the enthusiasm of Korean parents for their children’s education, citing a demand from parents for excellence in their schools, as well as an Asian hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for learning and for teachers – so much that their pay scales are comparable to doctors and other professionals. Talk about creating a culture of education. By no means are these countries’ education system ideal either, but that is for a future topic.

All the American public has heard about are specific problems and solutions mostly related to schooling: Create smaller classrooms. Develop stricter standards for teacher quality. More parent involvement. There’s not enough funding. We need national standards. More charter schools. Teacher pay should be tied to student achievement. The curriculum is too water-down and narrow. Through all this, the battle over American education has become more polarized, but more importantly, this reductionist perspective ignores the critical interrelationship among these issues. A complete and holistic perspective is needed to diagnose and improve education, one that experts have rarely considered – that we need to build a culture of education.

So, to address a national educational deficit and overall decline, a strong educational culture needs to be established in the United States and is the key to collective academic achievement and forward progress. So how do we do this?

The answer: Stop talking only about school reform. Start talking about the other integral parts of a culture of education — the child, the family, the community, and the government. The public at large never address these parts.

Next time: Part 2: Teacher or Parent Accountability?

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