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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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