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Think Again: Education

Ben Wildavsky
March 8, 2011
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Relax, America. Chinese math whizzes and Indian engineers aren't stealing your kids' future.

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.

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation, is author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World.

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