Is the United States losing its competitive edge?

Ben Wildavsky

Kai Ryssdal: Today Vice President Biden announced a plan to make the United States the number one country in the world for college graduation rates. South Korea's got the top spot at the moment. We've got a ways to go. The U.S. is in a four-way tie for ninth place. Forty-two percent of the college-age population here finishes school.

That doesn't sound great, but commentator Ben Wildavsky says the situation isn't really that bleak.

Ben Wildavsky: You've probably heard how American kids are falling behind the rest of the world educationally. How the Chinese are eating our lunch. How we're facing a Sputnik moment. These anxieties flared up when the results of the Program for International Student Assessment came out recently.

So how did U.S students rank?

An unimpressive 31st out of 65 countries in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. Meantime, kids in Shanghai took the test for the first time ever and outscored everybody.

Looks like America's golden age has ended, right? We've lost our edge.

Actually, there never was an educational golden age in the U.S. A new Brookings Institution report shows that the United States ranked 11th out of 12 countries when the first international math tests were given in the 1960s. What's more, the recent scores show that the U.S. actually improved modestly. We're still only average for developed countries in science, a little below average in math, and middling in reading. But we're moving in the right direction.

Most of the latest test-score coverage focused on the sky-high Shanghai results. But those numbers don't say much about Chinese education overall. Shanghai is a talent magnet that's showered with government spending. It just doesn't represent the whole country.

There's no doubt that the U.S. faces serious educational problems. We need to tackle them. But we shouldn't panic about international comparisons.

Here's another example from the world of research universities. Since 2002, our share of global scientific research has declined more than any other country's. But American scientists have actually produced 46,000 more articles over the same period.

We do have a smaller piece of the pie, but the pie has gotten much bigger. And that's good. We shouldn't fear that other countries' educational gains come at our expense. Knowledge crosses borders and benefits everyone. Yes, we must improve. But we're all better off in a better-educated world.

Ryssdal: Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. This commentary is adapted from Ben Wildavsky's article on the myths and realities of global education competition in the new issue of Foreign Policy.

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Its great to see much of optimism from the Americans even in this era when the US is being beaten in every area black and blue! The education in the States is nowhere comparable with the likes of China and India. Therefore, in a way this would probably also be a reason that these countries will be the Superpowers very soon due to their supremacy in education.

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.

This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to change our teaching tactics with real life projects.

Alan Cook

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