Think Again

Think Again: Education

Relax, America. Chinese math whizzes and Indian engineers aren't stealing your kids' future.

"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.

"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."

"The United States Used to Have the World's Smartest Schoolchildren."

No, it didn't. Even at the height of U.S. geopolitical dominance and economic strength, American students were never anywhere near the head of the class. In 1958, Congress responded to the Sputnik launch by passing the National Defense Education Act, which provided financial support for college students to study math, science, and foreign languages, and was accompanied by intense attention to raising standards in those subjects in American schools. But when the results from the first major international math test came out in 1967, the effort did not seem to have made much of a difference. Japan took first place out of 12 countries, while the United States finished near the bottom.

By the early 1970s, American students were ranking last among industrialized countries in seven of 19 tests of academic achievement and never made it to first or even second place in any of them. A decade later, "A Nation at Risk," the landmark 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, cited these and other academic failings to buttress its stark claim that "if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

Each new cycle of panic and self-flagellation has brought with it a fresh crop of reformers touting a new solution to U.S. scholastic woes. A 1961 book by Arthur S. Trace Jr. called What Ivan Knows That Johnny Doesn't, for instance, suggested that American students were falling behind their Soviet peers because they weren't learning enough phonics and vocabulary. Today's anxieties are no different, with education wonks from across the policy spectrum enlisting the U.S. education system's sorry global ranking to make the case for their pet ideas. J. Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, argues that the latest PISA test "underscores the need for integrating reasoning and sense making in our teaching of mathematics." Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, claims that the same results "tell us … that if you don't make smart investments in teachers, respect them, or involve them in decision-making, as the top-performing countries do, students pay a price."

If Americans' ahistorical sense of their global decline prompts educators to come up with innovative new ideas, that's all to the good. But don't expect any of them to bring the country back to its educational golden age -- there wasn't one.

"Chinese Students Are Eating America's Lunch."

Only partly true. The biggest headline from the recent PISA results concerned the first-place performance of students from Shanghai, and the inevitable "the Chinese are eating our lunch" meme was hard for American commentators and policymakers to resist. "While Shanghai's appearance at the top might have been a stunner, America's mediocre showing was no surprise," declared a USA Today editorial.

China's educational prowess is real. Tiger moms are no myth -- Chinese students focus intensely on their schoolwork, with strong family support -- but these particular results don't necessarily provide compelling evidence of U.S. inferiority. Shanghai is a special case and hardly representative of China as a whole; it's a talent magnet that draws from all over China and benefits from extensive government investment in education. Scores for the United States and other countries, by contrast, reflect the performance of a geographic cross-section of teenagers. China -- a vast country whose hinterlands are poorer and less-educated than its coastal cities -- would likely see its numbers drop if it attempted a similar assessment.

What about perennial front-runners like Finland and South Korea, whose students were again top scorers? These countries undoubtedly deserve credit for high educational accomplishment. In some areas -- the importance of carefully selected, high-quality teachers, for example -- they might well provide useful lessons for the United States. But they have nothing like the steady influx of immigrants, mostly Latinos, whose children attend American public schools. And unfortunately, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics of the United States -- none of which have analogues in Finland or South Korea -- correlate closely with yawning achievement gaps in education. Non-Hispanic white and Asian pupils in the United States do about as well on these international tests as students from high-scoring countries like Canada and Japan, while Latino and black teens -- collectively more than a third of the American students tested -- score only about as well as those from Turkey and Bulgaria, respectively.

To explain is not to excuse, of course. The United States has an obligation to give all its citizens a high-quality education; tackling the U.S. achievement gap should be a moral imperative. But alarmist comparisons with other countries whose challenges are quite different from those of the United States don't help. Americans should be less worried about how their own kids compare with kids in Helsinki than how students in the Bronx measure up to their peers in Westchester County.

"The U.S. No Longer Attracts the Best and Brightest."

Wrong. While Americans have worried about their elementary and high school performance for decades, they could reliably comfort themselves with the knowledge that at least their college education system was second to none. But today, American university leaders fret that other countries are catching up in, among other things, the market for international students, for whom the United States has long been the world's largest magnet. The numbers seem to bear this out. According to the most recent statistics, the U.S. share of foreign students fell from 24 percent in 2000 to just below 19 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, countries like Australia, Canada, and Japan saw increased market shares from their 2000 levels, though they are still far below the American numbers.

The international distribution of mobile students is clearly changing, reflecting an ever more competitive global higher-education market. But there are many more foreign students in the United States than there were a decade ago -- 149,000 more in 2008 than in 2000, a 31 percent increase. What has happened is that there are simply many more of them overall studying outside their home countries. Some 800,000 students ventured abroad in 1975; that number reached 2 million in 2000 and ballooned to 3.3 million in 2008. In other words, the United States has a smaller piece of the pie, but the pie has gotten much, much larger.

And even with its declining share, the United States still commands 9 percentage points more of the market than its nearest competitor, Britain. For international graduate study, American universities are a particularly powerful draw in fields that may directly affect the future competitiveness of a country's economy: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In disciplines such as computer science and engineering, more than six in 10 doctoral students in American programs come from foreign countries.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about. Although applications from international students to American graduate schools have recovered from their steep post-9/11 decline, the number of foreigners earning science and engineering doctorates at U.S. universities recently dropped for the first time in five years. American schools face mounting competition from universities in other countries, and the United States' less-than-welcoming visa policies may give students from overseas more incentive to go elsewhere. That's a loss for the United States, given the benefits to both its universities and its economy of attracting the best and brightest from around the world.

"American Universities Are Being Overtaken."

Not so fast. There's no question that the growing research aspirations of emerging countries have eroded the long-standing dominance of North America, the European Union, and Japan. Asia's share of the world's research and development spending grew from 27 to 32 percent from 2002 to 2007, led mostly by China, India, and South Korea, according to a 2010 UNESCO report. The traditional research leaders saw decreases during the same period. From 2002 to 2008, the U.S. proportion of articles in the Thomson Reuters Science Citation Index, the authoritative database of research publications, fell further than any other country's, from 30.9 to 27.7 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese publications recorded in the same index more than doubled, as did the volume of scientific papers from Brazil, a country whose research institutions wouldn't have been on anyone's radar 20 years ago.

This shift in the geography of knowledge production is certainly noteworthy, but as with the international study market, the United States simply represents a proportionally smaller piece of a greatly expanded pie. R&D spending worldwide massively surged in the last decade, from $790 billion to $1.1 trillion, up 45 percent. And the declining U.S. share of global research spending still represented a healthy increase in constant dollars, from $277 billion in 2002 to $373 billion in 2007. U.S. research spending as a percentage of GDP over the same period was consistent and very high by global standards. The country's R&D investments still totaled more than all Asian countries' combined.

Similarly, a declining U.S. share of the world's scientific publications may sound bad from an American point of view. But the total number of publications listed in the Thomson Reuters index surged by more than a third from 2002 to 2008. Even with a shrinking global lead, U.S. researchers published 46,000 more scientific articles in 2008 than they did six years earlier. And in any case, research discoveries don't remain within the borders of the countries where they occur -- knowledge is a public good, with little regard for national boundaries. Discoveries in one country's research institutions can be capitalized on by innovators elsewhere. Countries shouldn't be indifferent to the rise in their share of the research -- big breakthroughs can have positive economic and academic spillover effects -- but they also shouldn't fear the increase of cutting-edge discoveries elsewhere.

"The World Will Catch Up."

Maybe, but don't count on it anytime soon. And don't count on it mattering. The global academic marketplace is without doubt growing more competitive than ever. Countries from China and South Korea to Saudi Arabia have made an urgent priority of creating world-class universities or restoring the lost luster of once great institutions. And they're putting serious money into it: China is spending billions on expanding enrollment and improving its elite research institutions, while Saudi King Abdullah has funneled $10 billion into the brand-new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

But the United States doesn't have just a few elite schools, like most of its ostensible competitors; it has a deep bench of outstanding institutions. A 2008 Rand Corp. report found that nearly two-thirds of the most highly cited articles in science and technology come from the United States, and seven in 10 Nobel Prize winners are employed by American universities. And the United States spends about 2.9 percent of its GDP on postsecondary education, about twice the percentage spent by China, the European Union, and Japan in 2006.

But while the old U.S.-centric order of elite institutions is unlikely to be wholly overturned, it will gradually be shaken up in the coming decades. Asian countries in particular are making significant progress and may well produce some great universities within the next half-century, if not sooner. In China, for instance, institutions such as Tsinghua and Peking universities in Beijing and Fudan and Shanghai Jiao Tong universities in Shanghai could achieve real prominence on the world stage.

But over the long term, exactly where countries sit in the university hierarchy will be less and less relevant, as Americans' understanding of who is "us" and who is "them" gradually changes. Already, a historically unprecedented level of student and faculty mobility has become a defining characteristic of global higher education. Cross-border scientific collaboration, as measured by the volume of publications by co-authors from different countries, has more than doubled in two decades. Countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia are jump-starting a culture of academic excellence at their universities by forging partnerships with elite Western institutions such as Duke, MIT, Stanford, and Yale.

The notion of just how much a university really has to be connected to a particular location is being rethought, too. Western universities, from Texas A&M to the Sorbonne, have garnered much attention by creating, admittedly with mixed results, some 160 branch campuses in Asia and the Middle East, many launched in the last decade. New York University recently went one step further by opening a full-fledged liberal arts campus in Abu Dhabi, part of what NYU President John Sexton envisions as a "global network university." One day, as University of Warwick Vice Chancellor Nigel Thrift suggests, we may see outright mergers between institutions -- and perhaps ultimately the university equivalent of multinational corporations.

In this coming era of globalized education, there is little place for the Sputnik alarms of the Cold War, the Shanghai panic of today, and the inevitable sequels lurking on the horizon. The international education race worth winning is the one to develop the intellectual capacity the United States and everyone else needs to meet the formidable challenges of the 21st century -- and who gets there first won't matter as much as we once feared.

PHOTOILLUSTRATION; JUSTIN GUARIGLIA/EIGHTFISH; ISTOCKPHOTO

Think Again

Think Again: Egypt

From the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Arab autocracy domino theory, five myths about Egypt's revolution.

"Facebook Defeated Mubarak."

No. There's a joke that has been making the rounds in Egypt in recent weeks, and it goes something like this: Hosni Mubarak meets Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, two fellow Egyptian presidents, in the afterlife. Mubarak asks Nasser how he ended up there. "Poison," Nasser says. Mubarak then turns to Sadat. "How did you end up here?" he asks. "An assassin's bullet," Sadat says. "What about you?" To which Mubarak replies: "Facebook."

There's no question that social networking was a critical factor in Mubarak's overthrow. Groups like the April 6 Youth Movement and the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, which first called for the Jan. 25 protests that sparked the uprising, played a daring, important role in breaking the barrier of fear that had kept Egyptians in their homes.

But the popular explosion that led to Mubarak's overthrow was not simply a matter of calling for protests on Facebook; it was the product of years of pent-up rage and frustration at the corruption and abuse of power that had become the hallmarks of the Egyptian regime. The organizers carefully calibrated their messaging for mass appeal and chose a date -- a state holiday meant to celebrate the widely hated police -- that would resonate widely. Offline, they tapped into existing grassroots networks and built their own, such as the million strong who signed a petition calling for fundamental political change. Once the police fled the scene, the protesters were careful to show their respect for the military, forming human chains around Army vehicles to prevent any incident from undermining their refrain that "the Army and the people are one hand." And, as one key protest leader, Wael Ghonim, told 60 Minutes on Sunday, Feb. 13, they benefited greatly from the regime's own "stupid[ity]" -- its panic-driven shut-off of the Internet, its resort to tried-and-true tactics like hiring thugs to do its dirty work, and its failure to offer any meaningful alternative path to change.

"Obama Deserves Credit for the Revolution."

Yes, but only a little bit.

It's true that in the early days of the revolution, the Obama team was slow to side fully with the protesters -- beginning with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assessment that Egypt was "stable" and continuing through Vice President Joseph Biden's refusal to call Mubarak a "dictator" and the statements of Frank Wisner, the White House envoy -- later disavowed -- who said it was "critical" that the Egyptian leader stay in power.

When the Obama folks weren't garbling their talking points, they were offering bad advice, such as when the State Department undercut the protesters by urging them to engage in "dialogue" with Mubarak's newly installed vice president, Omar Suleiman. But Suleiman, a Mubarak hatchet man whom Clinton embraced as the improbable agent of democratic transformation, of course had no intention of carrying out genuine negotiations or dialogue. Instead, Suleiman hosted a one-way discussion with the loyal opposition -- a collection of hapless parties with little to no support on the street -- while refusing to deal with representatives of the youth movements in Tahrir Square. He then released a deeply disingenuous statement offering only token reforms and blaming "foreign elements" for the uprising; later, he said Egyptians lacked a "culture of democracy."

On the other hand, U.S. officials consistently, and with increasing impatience, condemned the use of force against protesters and urged the Egyptian military to do everything in its power to avoid bloodshed. At one point, the White House even intimated that the United States was reviewing its $1.3 billion military aid package. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, resisted heavy pressure from allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which urged him to back Mubarak to the bitter end, while rejecting the advice of pundits who demanded that he call publicly and clearly for the dictator to step down -- a move that would have played into the regime's strategy of painting the protesters as foreign agents.

On the whole, the best we can say for the Obama team is that it didn't screw up too badly. Until it became obvious to all that Mubarak was going down, the United States looked as if it was still trying to thread the needle, balancing its strategic ties to the regime with its genuine desire to see the Egyptian people's aspirations fulfilled. In the end, those positions proved impossible to reconcile.

"The Muslim Brotherhood Will Rule Egypt."

No. While the Islamist movement is without question Egypt's most organized opposition movement at the moment, it has said explicitly and repeatedly that it does not seek the presidency. For now, the Muslim Brotherhood has swung its support behind retired International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular liberal who played a key role in catalyzing the protests. It's not clear whether ElBaradei seeks the presidency himself, though he has said he will run if asked.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood itself, it probably represents no more than 20 percent of the Egyptian population. And now that the mass public has been mobilized and energized by calls for freedom and good governance -- not Islam -- the movement is in danger of being pushed to the margins of political life. Egyptians are a religious people, but most evince little desire to be ruled by Quranic diktats.

To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood can put a lot of bodies on the streets, especially in strongholds like Alexandria or in cities in the Nile Delta. But it's worth noting that the group did not officially endorse the initial round of protests. (One Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, even said, "On that day we should all be celebrating together" instead of protesting against the police.) Yes, its youth wing later played an important role in defending the barricades in Tahrir Square, while its networks outside the square were critical in bringing in supplies to sustain the protests. But it's not clear how loyal they are to an older leadership that failed to squarely confront Mubarak for decades. A broad, secular youth coalition, branding itself as the true custodians of the revolution, would have enormous appeal at the ballot box, even for young Brotherhood supporters, many Egyptians told me.

"The Revolution Is Over."

Maybe. Most of the revolutionaries who occupied Tahrir Square for the last three weeks have gone home, and key political leaders -- such as the liberal politician Ayman Nour -- say their main demands have been met. Mubarak, his rigged parliament, and his anti-democratic constitution are gone, and Egypt seems to be blossoming under transitional military rule, as state media embraces the revolution and ordinary Egyptians begin discussing politics for the first time. The military has promised to hand over power to an elected, civilian government in six months' time.

Yet the fall of Mubarak represents only the partial collapse of his regime. Many top figures have left the hated National Democratic Party, which saw its headquarters burned on Jan. 28, but its vast electoral machine still exists. Hundreds of mini-Mubaraks -- heavy-handed provincial governors and corrupt local officials -- control the provinces. The Interior Ministry, though much diminished, still operates, as does Mubarak's feared state security apparatus. His final cabinet, led by a former Air Force general with close ties to Mubarak, has not been replaced, and it's not clear what role Suleiman will play going forward.

So far, there are no guarantees that "Mubarakism without Mubarak" won't make a comeback -- all we have is the word of an unelected junta led by generals installed by Mubarak himself. The Egyptian military has moved to outlaw labor strikes, which have spread across the country in recent days as thousands of state workers -- including, incredibly, police officers seeking higher wages -- have seized the moment to press their own demands. If the strikes escalate, watch out: Egypt could be headed for a period of extended instability rather than democratic consolidation. What's happening in Tunisia, where wave after wave of protests has led to a revolving door of high-level resignations and recriminations, might well follow in Egypt.

Another danger is that a failure to quickly improve the lives of Egypt's poorest, some 40 percent of whom reportedly live on less than $2 a day, could lead to a backlash. The revolution may have succeeded, but it has deeply wounded Egypt's economy, which relies heavily on tourism and is vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of basic commodities, such as wheat.

And let's not forget that the protest organizers have called for weekly Friday rallies until all their demands -- including the release of all political detainees and the installation of an interim government of national unity -- are met. As one of them put it to me, "We know how to find Tahrir Square."

"Country X Is Next."

It's too early to tell.

As demonstrations break out in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, and Yemen, it's easy to imagine popular protests sweeping across the region and expelling autocrats from Rabat to Riyadh. Clearly what happened in Egypt, the beating heart of the Arab world, won't stay in Egypt.

Yet the revolutionaries in Cairo had a few unique advantages. Alongside its massive state media apparatus, among the world's largest, Egypt boasted independent newspapers and a robust, if embattled civil society that had learned much in its years of working against the regime (several key protest organizers, such as Ahmed Maher and Zyad el-Elaimy, were veterans of Kefaya, an early anti-government movement). Egyptian reporters and pundits were often hassled, but they could write what they wanted as long as they didn't cross certain red lines, such as discussing the president's health or delving too deeply into corrupt business deals. The Internet was monitored, but not censored outright. Hundreds of foreign reporters had experience and contacts in Egypt and could get the word out. And given the close ties between the Pentagon and the Egyptian military, the United States had leverage that may have helped prevent a far nastier crackdown. Other protest movements won't be so lucky.

Opposition leaders in other Arab countries will have to find their own, locally rooted paths to victory; simply setting a date and calling for people to go to the streets won't work. And they now face terrified rulers who see clearly that they need to adapt, though none will give up an iota of any real power. Some, like the monarchs in Bahrain and Kuwait, will attempt to defuse any "Tunisia effect" by doling out piles of cash, while others, such as Jordan's King Abdullah II, are sacking their governments and once again vowing political reform. The worst of the bunch, like Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi and Syria's Bashar Assad, will opt for deeper repression.

Change is finally coming to the Arab world. The only question is: How fast and how painful will it be?

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images