The test scores are in, and the U.S. is lagging far behind. That’s the headline rippling across America’s newspapers this week as the Programme for International Student Assessment has released its 2012 evaluations of schoolchildren across the world, and Americans are once again finding out that they are far from being #1.
The New York Times noted that “The United States’ underperformance was particularly striking in math, where 29 countries or education systems had higher test scores. In science, students in 22 countries did better than Americans, and in reading, 19 countries.” NBC News anchor Brian Williams opened his PISA segment by describing “the big and sobering news tonight about the state of American education and just how quickly the rest of the world is passing us by.”
The thing is, we’ve always flunked these tests. Since international comparative testing programs began in the 1960s, education reform advocate Diane Ravitch notes “U.S. students have never been top performers on the international tests. We are doing about the same now on PISA as we have done for the past half century.” And for the past half-century, the periodic release of these results have sent American politicians and journalists into a tizzy about the declining competitiveness of the American classroom, a dark phenomenon heralding national decline.
Despite those mediocre test scores, however, one would have to say that the United States has done rather well for itself. We have had our troubles in the intervening years to be sure, but it’s not like the French have overtaken us and are now running away with the world thanks to their superior education. Some scholarly experts warn that even so, we’re in a new era now and decline is once again just around the street corner. The Times quoted Stanford professor Eric A. Hanushek as saying,
Our economy has still been strong because we have a very good economic system that is able to overcome the deficiencies of our education system … But increasingly, we have to rely on the skills of our work force, and if we don’t improve that, we’re going to be slipping.
With due deference to Dr. Hanushek, I rather suspect things may be the other way around. More rigorously organized cultures like Germany, China, South Korea, France, etc. have crafted their educational systems around the primacy of the test, and have driven their students to excel in it. They also often use these tests to sort their students into the tracks determining what further education they will receive. Do well on your eighth grade exams, go to university. Score differently, and get an apprenticeship. The United States has a much more free-wheeling system that industrial employers lament is failing to sufficiently supply them with diesel engine experts.
What we do have, though (and regular readers brace yourselves), is Silicon Valley. The entrepreneur may be overrated in the GOP at the moment, but a creative culture that fosters innovative risks shouldn’t be taken for granted. Moreover, having even the remnant of a liberal arts education circulating in our educational drinking water provides an essential enriching service to our culture. Diesel engine builders may not need to read To Kill a Mockingbird, or Joseph Conrad, or to stare hopelessly at whatever seemingly nonsensical Shakespeare sits in front of them. But we offer every kid the chance to be captured by beauty, and to remember a high school reading when they grow up and realize what Kafkaesque really means.
Ravitch quotes from Keith Baker’s essay “Are International Tests Worth Anything?”: “What has mattered most for the economic, cultural, and technological success of the U.S., he says, is a certain “spirit,” which he defines as “ambition, inquisitiveness, independence, and perhaps most important, the absence of a fixation on testing and test scores.”
That sounds about right.