appreciate the contrarian spirit of Ben Wildavsky's piece ("Think Again:
Education," March/April 2011). He is absolutely right that the sky-high test
scores coming out of Shanghai say nothing about China as a whole. And it is
true that Americans' anxiety about their students' international
competitiveness is nothing new.
And yet the harder
Wildavsky tries to convince us that everything is fine, the more worried I
feel. America's relative test scores don't matter so much, he argues, "[s]o
long as American schoolchildren are not moving backward in absolute terms."
But since 1969, America's
high school graduation rate has dropped from 77 percent to 69 percent,
according to an analysis released last year by the Editorial Projects in
Education Research Center. Kids are now less likely to graduate from high
school than their parents. If that's not "backward," then I don't know what is.
Meanwhile, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Britain now have high school graduation
rates of 90 percent or more.
Wildavsky says such comparisons aren't fair;
America has far more poor, immigrant, black, and Latino kids than, say, Finland
or South Korea, the top performers on international tests. But if we look at
white kids only, just for the sake of argument, why does the United States
still underachieve? On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high
scorers in math among white kids than Poland has among kids overall, according
to 2010 research by Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek and colleagues.
(Poland, it's worth mentioning, has a higher poverty rate than the United
States does and spends less than half what America spends per pupil on K-12
education; New York spends more than almost every U.S. state.)
Call me hysterical, but when the United States
doubles the amount of money it spends on something, as it has done for K-12
education since the early 1970s, and sees no major progress, it may be worth
considering what other countries are doing that America isn't.
Ben Wildavsky makes an excellent point that we are far
too alarmist about the prospect of Chinese math geniuses threatening America's
future prosperity. He rightfully puts to rest the theory that global education
development is a zero-sum game. He also straightens out the record on the
history of U.S. performance in schools and on the current role of higher
Nonetheless, he leaves the reader with the
wrong message: Let's not be too concerned about performance; it is old news,
and we have seen repeatedly that everything tends to work out just fine. The
simple fact is that being 31st in the world in math performance is a really big
deal. The skills of America's future labor force, as measured by the Program
for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, are very closely linked to
the country's potential economic growth. Specifically, long-term growth is
highly correlated with performance on these international measures of skills.
If historic patterns
hold, we can already calculate the implications for America's future. Assume
that the United States could raise achievement to that of Finland, the
top-scoring country for the past decade. Over the next 80 years, the typical
life span of somebody born today, improvements would have a present value of
more than $100 trillion, according to my calculations.
Why has the U.S. economy done so relatively
well if, as Wildavsky accurately points out, America has done poorly for a long
time in terms of student achievement on international tests? A number of
factors are relevant. First, the United States has the best economic
institutions: relatively unfettered and open labor and capital markets, minimal
governmental intrusion, and secure property rights. Second, as he points out,
U.S. higher education institutions have led the world. Third, the United States
has taken advantage of extraordinarily talented immigrants to its colleges and
tech companies. These factors have been sufficient to overcome the mediocre
skills produced in its schools.
America's future success, however, will
require either doing better on those fronts or improving the skills of its population.
The staggering differences in potential futures for the United States demand
that Americans should take these PISA scores as a wake-up call.
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Palo Alto, Calif.
Ben Wildavsky replies:
against alarmism isn't the same as arguing for complacency. I didn't suggest,
per Amanda Ripley, that "everything is fine," nor, per Eric Hanushek, that we
shouldn't be concerned about the United States' academic results because
"everything tends to work out."
wrote that American schools are "certainly in need of significant progress" and
that "tackling the U.S. achievement gap [by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic
status] should be a moral imperative." I did argue that international test
scores don't support the notion of a crisis of declining U.S. academic skills,
that America's global performance is heavily influenced by its dismaying
domestic achievement gap, and that the United States' anxiety about its
international standing often devolves into the wrongheaded view that one
country's gains somehow come at the expense of others.
Ripley is correct that U.S. high school graduation rates
are down 8 percentage points from their historic high of 77 percent in 1969.
That's a big problem. However, the same analysis she cites shows that
graduation rates have risen 3.1 percentage points over the past decade. It also
notes that the Latino graduation rate, at just under 56 percent, is 21
percentage points below that of non-Hispanic whites -- and that the Latino student
population has grown 50 percent in the last decade. Of course, one can find
persuasive evidence that white students also need to improve. But these stark disparities
in graduation rates, which parallel a massive test-score divide, underscore my
view that narrowing the U.S. achievement gap would go a long way toward raising
the United States' global standing.
Hanushek, too, is right that education and economic
growth are connected. That's one reason we should welcome the modest (and
unheralded) recent U.S. gains on the latest PISA tests. A new report by
Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless notes that if the latest U.S.
improvements are repeated when the PISA tests are next administered in 2012 and
if Hanushek's estimates of the economic benefits of better scores are correct,
the country will be positioned for significant GDP gains. That would be a good
thing -- even if other countries also improve, leaving America's global rankings unchanged.
PISA test, like almost all "educational metrics," is a one-dimensional measure.
How can you judge a complex human being, even a young child, by using a single
real number? I've been teaching kids math for over 30 years, and I wouldn't
dare to judge a student's ability using one single test. We should stop making
social and political decisions based on such simple one-dimensional metrics.
lost in the dialogue is the fact that America's elite undergraduate/graduate
students and schools are superb -- and their educational success is what matters
far more than the rest. The bottom 30 percent of the country's students are
truly lousy, but their academic success was never going to matter much to
America's economic vitality anyway. Those students won't be using trigonometry
in their occupations, and their inability to comprehend it doesn't really
matter. Not worth getting worked up over.