Think Again: Education

"American Kids Are Falling Behind."

Not really. Anybody seeking signs of American decline in the early 21st century need look no further, it would seem, than the latest international educational testing results. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) -- the most-watched international measure in the field -- found that American high school students ranked 31st out of 65 economic regions in mathematics, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. Students from the Chinese city of Shanghai, meanwhile, shot to the top of the ranking in all three categories -- and this was the first time they had taken the test.

More... "For me, it's a massive wake-up call," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Washington Post when the results were released in December. "Have we ever been satisfied as Americans being average in anything? Is that our aspiration? Our goal should be absolutely to lead the world in education." The findings drove home the sense that the United States faced, as President Barack Obama put it in his State of the Union address, a "Sputnik moment."

In fact, the U.S. education system has been having this sort of Sputnik moment since -- well, Sputnik. Six months after the 1957 Soviet satellite launch that shook the world, a Life magazine cover story warned Americans of a "crisis in education." An accompanying photo essay showed a 16-year-old boy in Chicago sitting through undemanding classes, hanging out with his girlfriend, and attending swim-team practices, while his Moscow counterpart -- an aspiring physicist -- spent six days a week conducting advanced chemistry and physics experiments and studying English and Russian literature. The lesson was clear: Education was an international competition and one in which losing carried real consequences. The fear that American kids are falling behind the competition has persisted even as the competitors have changed, the budding Muscovite rocket scientist replaced with a would-be engineer in Shanghai.

This latest showing of American 15-year-olds certainly isn't anything to brag about. But American students' performance is only cause for outright panic if you buy into the assumption that scholastic achievement is a zero-sum competition between nations, an intellectual arms race in which other countries' gain is necessarily the United States' loss. American competitive instincts notwithstanding, there is no reason for the United States to judge itself so harshly based purely on its position in the global pecking order. So long as American schoolchildren are not moving backward in absolute terms, America's relative place in global testing tables is less important than whether the country is improving teaching and learning enough to build the human capital it needs.

And by this measure, the U.S. education system, while certainly in need of significant progress, doesn't look to be failing so spectacularly. The performance of American students in science and math has actually improved modestly since the last round of this international test in 2006, rising to the developed-country average in science while remaining only slightly below average in math. U.S. reading scores, in the middle of the pack for developed countries, are more or less unchanged since the most recent comparable tests in 2003. It would probably be unrealistic to expect much speedier progress. As Stuart Kerachsky, deputy commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, put it, "The needle doesn't move very far very fast in education."


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It is a moderately long read if you have the time. It is also good to read non-panic about our education system and it hits on the problems with comparing the United States with homogeneous places like Finland and South Korea.