3 Ways to Combat Boredom and Close the Global Education Gap

Millions of youngsters are heading back to
school eager to start a new academic
year. Many will thrive but too many will
succumb to the epidemic of boredom
threatening students in schools throughout
our country. Boredom in schools – the
opposite of the behavioral, cognitive and
relational engagement that predicts long-
term educational persistence and success,
is surely behind the steady decline of our
education system on the world stage.
While we all have our favorite school, can
recall an engaging teacher or a visionary
principal, the system as a whole is not
Once the envy of the world, the United
States is now educationally behind in
measure after measure, from preschool to
college. The global gap starts early
indeed: 81 percent of children in the
developed world enrolled in preschool last
year, while only 69 percent were enrolled
in the U.S. Whereas two generations ago
we led the world in the percentage of high
school graduates, today we are at a
mediocre 11th place. More alarming are
projections recently released by the
Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development : Among those 25-year-
old and younger we now rank an abysmal
23rd in the estimates of youth and
emerging adults who will complete high
school over their life time. In Los Angeles,
the nation's second largest Unified School
District, only 64 percent of the class of
2014 is on track for graduation. Two
generations ago we ranked third in the
world in college graduation rates but
comparative OECD data show that less
than 50 percent of Americans 25-to-34
year olds have completed college. While
31percent of college students drop out in
the world's high-income countries, in the
U.S. over 50 percent will drop out.
Of course, every generation claims
education is more important than ever
before. Today is no different: nearly all of
the basic indicators of wellness,
productivity and socio-economic mobility
are linked to education. From the
flourishing of children, to the ability of
the citizenry to act intelligently and
deliberatively on the pressing issues of the
day, education is the sine qua non.
Furthermore, in times of economic decline,
as Nobel Prize winning economist James
Heckman has argued, "the economic
strength of any nation depends on the
skills of its people."
[See a collection of political cartoons on
the economy. ]
Here is the heart of the problem: Walk
into any American school and ask students
to complete the sentence, "School is
________." The most common answer will
be "boring." The test-driven, market-
oriented education reform of late has
contributed to a culture of boredom in
schools that is asphyxiating the cognitive
engagement of too many American kids.
Authentic learning and autonomous inquiry
now take the back seat to test prepping
and test taking. If you think the current
cheating scandals plaguing even our elite
exam schools (such as Stuyvesant in New
York City ) are the biggest indictment
against the test-driven mania, think again.
Boredom is the elephant in the
To get beyond boredom will be a steep
climb. Here are three domains in which we
need to do better or we will continue to
decline in the international arena:
First, kids are bored in schools but are
overly engaged with (read: addicted to)
computer games and social media. To
make the tools that engage this
generation of kids educationally
meaningful, we need to turn computer
science into a core academic competency.
In the biggest technological intervention
in the history of American education, the
Los Angeles Unified School District will
invest millions of dollars to purchase over
700,000 iPads – one for every student. But
such an investment is unlikely to be
effective – students are already avid
technology consumers – without a
paradigm-shifting plan aimed to turn
every student into a creator and producer
of technology. Research by Jane Margolis
and her colleagues suggest that this will
require a more rigorous, engaging and
stepped-up curriculum for all students. We
need to teach our students to go beyond
boring, rudimentary computing skills and
simply using applications and instead
teach them the problem-solving, logical
thinking and creativity that are at the
heart of innovation. Schools in
Stockholm's immigrant-and-refugee-rich
districts are far ahead of us in the use of
technologies in classrooms where the
most disadvantaged students are
Second, foreign languages are boring to
us. Thus, we are wasting our linguistic
capital. While our global cities, New York,
Los Angeles and to a lesser extend
Chicago, are home to all the world's major
languages – thanks to our vibrant
immigrant communities, by the third
generation, the vast majority our Asian
and Latino-origin Americans will have lost
the mastery of their ancestral languages.
To paraphrase Harvard sociologist Stanley
Lieberson, Los Angeles and New York are
now the world's largest cemetery for
languages: where German, Japanese and
Italian died a century ago, Spanish,
Mandarin and Korean are slowly dying
today. Linguistic diversity when coupled
with the geographic endowment of cities
like L.A., San Francisco and Seattle at the
crossroads of Asia and Latin America is a
real advantage that we are letting go to
waste. In the economies and societies of
the 21st century, speaking only one
language is a clear handicap. Brain
researchers have documented the cognitive
advantages of speaking more than one
language, and new research soon to be
published by Patricia Gándara and Rebecca
Callahan shows there are also economic
advantages to bilingualism. Bilingual
workers are both paid and valued more.
Bilingual workers are 75 percent more
likely to be hired than their monolingual
peers with the same skills. Additionally,
research shows that Latino students who
achieve bilingual competency are less
likely to drop out of school and are more
likely to attend college and earn more
than their monolingual peers. We need to
make our global cities, starting with New
York and L.A., our country's reservoir for
world languages – but try to sign up in
either city to learn Mandarin, Hindustani,
Arabic, or Spanish and you will have to
wait months, if not years.
[See a collection of political cartoons on
the budget and deficit. ]
Third, we need to prioritize early childhood
education. In terms of school readiness
and early critical literacy-enriching
experiences, we lag behind the gold-
standard programs of cities like Italy's
Reggio Emilia – the world's beacon for
early childhood education. When kids are
not ready, boredom and disengagement
can become endemic. What follows too
often is not life-long learning but life-long
catching up. Engagement is the only way
to close an achievement gap among low-
income immigrant and marginalized
children of color that is already evident by
age three, when a majority score well
below their white peers in vocabulary,
letter recognition and early numeracy
skills. Studies suggest that the timing,
duration and quality of childcare settings
are indispensable to boosting school
readiness. In a classic study, economist
James Heckman has shown that every
dollar invested in quality early-childhood
development for disadvantaged children
produces a seven to 10 percent return , per
child, per year, per dollar invested.
[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College
Degree Still Worth It? ]
Lastly, the American teaching profession
needs support for a culture change. When
the world looks for a 21st-century
education model that works for all children
there is no better example than Finland
where teachers work in highly
professionalized teams involving
psychologists, social workers, and nurses –
all continuously supported by the public
and the government, well remunerated,
and backed by strong unions. Teachers are
the pride of Finland. In contrast, our
American teachers are dispirited.
Bored kids and dispirited teachers are a
bad, bad combination.
Turning our kids into makers of
technology, saving our languages,
investing wisely in early childhood
education, and honoring our teachers
would go a long way reverse our current
unhappy educational status