The debilitating effect of U.S. Education on Global Business

Ms. Kara Meyer“I have seen the enemy…and it is U.S.”:
The debilitating effect of U.S. education upon American Global Business Interests ©

by Kara L. Meyer MBA

As we move into the second decade of this new millennium, American business leaders cannot afford to limit themselves to considerations pertaining only to their domestic environment.  2010 continued to produce a vastly expanded range of cross-continental commerce, making it imperative for any effective American business leader – and his staff – to possess a global mindset.  Increasingly, the line separating domestic and global has become blurred – even nonexistent – and American businesses must recognize an inadequacy in their organization’s ability to compete with their globally-inclined counterparts.

In seeking to understand the reasons for this circumstance – and many such circumstances exist – this writer is of the opinion that the foundational issue revolves around one in particular:  American education.  The effects of a sub-par national education system, coupled with an overall complacency towards understanding the ethnic, social, religious cultural and national imperatives of those making up today’s dynamic global environment –  are negatively affecting the American people’s ability to succeed.

Americans – as opposed to citizenry in most other nations – are curtailed during their early, formative years from learning about the rest of the world.  International emphases have been virtually erased from American educational programs. This, when combined with faculty bereft of any “real” global expertise, ( i.e. expertise actually garnered from working  “on-the-ground”  overseas …rather than from reading American  texts on ‘how to do business globally’) American students face near insurmountable obstacles to their education. The sad truth is that such students face such hurdles without ever being aware of these impediments.  For a nation whose elected officials proclaim at the top of their lungs that America is “a global leadership nation,” how can something as integral to this country’s success as specific facets of the education of its future leaders be so blatantly overlooked?  In this globally interlinked environment, how is it possible that so few educational programs address the need for a significant global component in their curricula?  I am behind the times…I cannot catch up…but I just don’t care…

On December 10, 2010, the New York Times released a report detailing the latest international scores from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test administered to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (New York Times, 2010).  China’s debut in international standardized testing amazed experts. Chinese 15-year-olds outscored their international counterparts in dozens of other countries in subjects ranging from reading and math to science.  Scores from Shanghai reflect the culture of education in China: greater emphasis on instructor education and more time involved in studying as opposed to extracurricular activities (New York Times, 2010). More time actually studying? Instead of on extra-curricular activities? What a novel idea!

In an interview on December 6, 2010, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said,

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better…the United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects.  We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.” (New York Times, 2010)

The abysmal state of global awareness that the American education system imparts to its students serves to prepare them simply to be behind the rest of the world. This, in turn, creating a debilitating effect upon the quality of globally aware, internationally sophisticated, globally prepared U.S. citizens produced here in the United States.

It is this writer’s belief that, at least in global endeavor, American students – and subsequently American business leaders – are falling further and further behind their international counterparts.

Shortly before this article was completed, and just after the results from the most recent PISA assessment were released, an article from the Oregonian revealed something a bit shocking: Oregon middle and high school students were now being allowed to use a spell check tool on their computers for state standardized tests in 2011.  Perhaps it was just too difficult to teach the students the basics of the language they have spoken – in some form or fashion – for their entire lives?     State Superintendent Susan Castillo told the Oregonian, “ We are not letting a student’s keyboarding skills get in the way of being able to judge their writing ability” (Oregonian, 2010).  Srue, but what if they smpily cnaont slepl?

Oregon State Representative Sherrie Sprenger said:

“The concern I was hearing from colleagues in my school districts is that seeing a kid struggle with spelling on the test forces them to continue to work on spelling with that student…Instead, we’re going to be saying there’s a tool to adapt for that. But there’s value in continuing to persevere in learning that skill.”  (Oregonian, 2010).

So, while 15-year-olds in Shanghai were producing amazing test scores, 15-year-olds in the United States were being allowed to use spell check.  Fantastic.

In March 2010, a Texas Board of Education panel pushed through substantial changes to Social Studies textbooks distributed to students from elementary to high school.  Elected to the panel members – whose professional/vocational calling ranged from real estate agents to dentists  –  pushed through over 200 amendments to recommendations from teachers, professors and education industry experts in the field of economics, sociology, and history (New York Times, 2010).  The amendments are significant – not only in Texas but in the rest of the country – as this state is one of the nation’s leading purchasers of textbooks.  These elected officials have placed their conservative stamp (Note: this writer meant conservative NOT Republican, for those who may presume a political statement was being proffered) – steeped in prejudicial values, religious fervor, and anti-globalization ideals – on the next decade of textbooks and, consequently, the next decade of students across the United States.

Throughout and after her own graduate level endeavor, this writer interacted with many other Masters level alumni and students from around the nation.  In numerous personal discussions she found many individuals pointed to an extraordinary chasm which existed in the level, depth and continuous accrual of vital, current, global and cross-cultural awareness amongst the majority of the faculty with whom they had to work.  Many students this writer spoke with about their experience in American higher education spoke to the adamant refusal of university administrators to take heed of the aforementioned shortcomings. This insult – levied at their own students – was only compounded by the ensuing rejection of the idea that such deficiencies could possibly exist in their “carefully vetted” staff.

Sadly, the overwhelming majority of the American degree-seeking students, however, had absolutely no opinion on the matter at all.  Of course, this writer acknowledges that this could be simply because the students were completely unaware that they were being short-changed.  Essentially, many of the individuals this writer had the opportunity to speak with may have been – when students – so ill-prepared for degree classes focusing on current global issues they were unaware the faculty person knew so little.  Unfortunately, this produces classroom after classroom of future American business leaders without any idea as to the professional environments they are preparing to enter.

After several months and myriad interviews, it became apparent that – at many American universities with a declared objective to provide world-class business education – the quality of instruction took a back seat to the administration’s private agenda.  Amongst the many discussions she had it became apparent that, for instance, at one particular institution (which could serve as an example of many others) a prevailing posture (and it continues as of the writing of this article) amongst the senior directors of the Graduate School of Business was to first excuse, then downplay the students’ grievances about faculty incompetence.  Student complaints were either systematically ignored or aggressively attacked by the head of the department…but the institution continued to collect federal aid money.  Is it any wonder there has been such a reaction to the exponential increases in tuition?

The vast majority of faculty chosen to instruct students in global business are considerably under qualified, though not in the way which may first come to mind.  This writer says nothing of their individual academic qualifications; the primary concern is a complete lack of understanding and appreciation of other cultures, other nations, other national laws and policies…other peoples of longevity of existence on the planet. This is coupled with a dismal lack of actual executive experience in the international environment.   Perhaps they went on an extended vacation fifteen years ago with their wife’s family.  Maybe they served in a branch of the U.S. military for a time.  None of that provides in-depth, current, expertise in global affairs.
It is also possible they were chosen to teach for the simple fact that they are – by race or heritage – from some specific overseas nation and are now in the United States.  For example: how does someone of Irish background, an academically and vocationally-qualified microbiologist, add anything to a graduate class which is supposed to be focused on international finance?  A course which – inherently – requires an understanding of current finance issues around the world…not just in Ireland?  An effective instructor of international business has been continuously exposed to cultures other than his own, possessing the knowledge and cultural appreciation necessary to effectively underscore the importance of extending one’s mind outside the pre-programmed domestic boundaries of the United States.

Obviously there are – albeit a precious few – graduate faculty who are excellent global business instructors. Beyond their constantly updated awareness of global imperatives, however, such faculty encourages their students to undertake a critical examination of their own beliefs, values and attitudes.  Through the utilization of globally-inclined assignments, lectures and dynamic educational expertise underpinned by their own recent international experiences, proper academic debate …even polite controversy… is vigorously pursued as students are continually exposed to ideas, cultures and people uniquely different from what many American students consider to be “normal.”   In many instances, these instructors provide the first look at a world of “besides America.”  The caliber of the teacher directly affects the caliber of the student.

Individuals – and not just Americans – should think back to their own education. Was there a significant global component in any of the courses completed?  Who was teaching these courses…were they qualified to do so?  From whence did they come by their qualifications?  Apart from extended vacations abroad…was there anyone amongst the faculty who had actually operated a business outside the United States?  Someone who had accrued an in-depth understanding and appreciation of a culture outside their home country?  Was there an exchange program offered at the university?  Did the institution offer regular study abroad programs?  How many universities in the United States mandate courses devoted strictly to other areas of the world?  How many business programs require fluency in a second or third language?

The question which arises for this writer is how such American institutions actually receive accreditation….at least for their Global business/management programs.   Do the American accreditation bodies actually have people on staff capable of vetting such programs? That would mean functioning academics with the sort of global expertise mentioned above.  Does the United States Department of Education actually demand of the regional accreditation bodies that they vet more strenuously?  Demand of institutions that they prove their Global business faculty have actually operated businesses overseas?    Why do they not require of accredited American institutions that the accreditation site visitors be actually allowed to speak to a random sampling of students (a sampling chosen at random by the accreditation board itself…not carefully vetted and put forth by the institutions themselves) who are actually enrolled in these courses?

This writer supposes that if an American institution can get by the accreditation process simply by saying it has faculty to teach the classes…in a supine fashion, the accreditation bodies allow them to go ahead and teach.  This would surely explain the rift between the manner of the knowledge necessarily present in a global expert as opposed to the clowns some institutions try to pass off as such.  By decreasing the quality of the faculty person and increasing the amount of tuition, universities all over the country are making millions in one of the worst economic downturns in American history.

As part of her professional undertakings this writer has been interacting – internationally – with multimillion dollar buyers from the Middle East, South America and various countries in the European Union.  In so doing she had to work alongside American (and other) professional compatriots as the interests and needs of the international clientele were addressed.  Over the years it became apparent that insularity, complacency, arrogance and an embarrassing lack of awareness amongst the leaders of her American employing organizations was prevalent.  This awareness – and continual embarrassment – carried on through her graduate studies as she met more and more executive level adults who were completely oblivious of the world in which the United States is an integral yet fractional part.

Over several years it has become apparent to this writer that a significant impediment to America’s global business success has been the abysmal lack of socio-religio-cultural-national awareness of the global arena.  This is especially so amongst the ranks of the decision making executives of multinational corporations.  Inevitably these are corporations which are either already functioning internationally or have ambitions to succeed in the international environment.  They seem to be under the illusion that the outdated, American-inspired technical knowledge of the deal-making process is enough to carry them through any negotiation with any other party. They could not be more wrong. Indeed, it is this arrogance which will surely derail any negotiation almost before it has begun.

It is this writer’s contention that the most debilitating factor for American businesses has been – and will continue to be for the foreseeable future – the lack of in-depth, constantly updated awareness by senior American executives of the constantly evolving social, religious, national, regional and cultural imperatives held by the people they will have to deal with around the world.  In this new decade and beyond, such Americans will not be constrained only to competing with incredibly well-educated, globally-sophisticated executives of overseas organizations; they will need to deal with government officers, heads of agencies, and overseas entrepreneurs. Indeed they will need to understand overseas citizenry.

This speaks to a worrying lack of awareness of the volatility and constantly evolving nature of global issues across all divisions of most businesses.  For instance, in the case of human capital management in the United States…at a time when more and more talented, multilingual, globally sophisticated, overly well-qualified executives from around the world now compete with Americans…most American human resource departments are ignorant of how to deal with talented new staff – whose antecedents lie overseas – yet are now an integral part of the American employee constituency.

Wake up, America.  It’s a long fall from the top.

References

The New York Times.  Shanghai Test Scores Stun Educators.  December 7, 2010.  Retrieved December 7, 2010, from http://nytimes.ms.ggqRCn

The New York Times.  Texas Conservatives Win Curricula Change. March 12, 2010.  Retrieved December 10, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/13/education/13texas.html

The Oregonian.  Oregon will Allow Students to use Spell Check on State Writing Tests in 2011. December 14, 2010.  Retrieved January 2, 2011 from
http://www.oregonlive.com/education/index.ssf/2010/12/oregon_will_allow_students_to.html

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