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A New ‘Sputnik Moment,’ As Misleading As The First

Our public schools are awash in high-stakes testing, but we aren’t doing well enough. We know this, of course, because the latest test results tell us so.

“To be brutally honest...a host of developed nations are out-educating us,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier this month in response to recently released international rankings produced by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The United States placed 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of the 34 OECD countries.

The real surprises, however, were the scores of two non-OECD education systems included in the study: Shanghai and Hong Kong. Averaged across the three disciplines measured, the United States had a score of 496 on a scale of zero to 1,000. Hong Kong scored 546. Shanghai averaged 577, ranking first in all three categories.

President Obama declared the situation to be a new “Sputnik moment” for American education, referring to the Cold War fears triggered by the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite in 1957. At that time, the U.S. made a massive push to improve math and science curricula as a way of retaining the country’s technical advantage. Harking back to the language of the Space Race, Obama said he wants to protect investments in education (that means spend a lot of federal money) to “win the race” for jobs and economic development.

In reality, however, the U.S. never really fell behind in its race with the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. had a few strong suits, in which it rivaled or surpassed our abilities. Rocketry, at that moment, was one of them. But there was never a time when, overall, the Soviets remotely approached the level of American technology, efficiency or productivity. From cars to nuclear power, Soviet technology was an unreliable backwater.

The current “Sputnik moment” is, like the original, an overreaction.

The PISA rankings show that the average 15-year-old American student cannot answer as many test questions correctly as the average 15-year-old student in Shanghai. But this is no cause for societal or economic panic. What is important is that our companies are able to find the talent they need to develop. Is Boeing having trouble finding enough people with the knowledge of advanced calculus necessary to design airplanes? Are publishing houses struggling to locate people with the reading skills necessary to edit books? I don’t think so. As long as I’m right, American companies will be on solid ground.

Even if companies were having difficulty accessing talent, the most practical solution at a policy level would be, not to teach more Americans calculus or editing, but to reform labor and immigration laws to enable companies to hire the people who have those skills, wherever they reside. The practical solution on a corporate level would be to send the work requiring specific skills to the places where people with those skills are available. Boeing might open a design facility in Finland, which scored an impressive 541 on the math assessment. Harper Collins might hire freelance editors based in Canada, which bested us by 24 points in reading.

The answer is not to simply amp up competition in American schools in order to try to raise our position in international competitions. This, unfortunately, seems to be what education officials intend to do. Education Secretary Duncan said at a press conference following the release of the PISA scores, “The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.”

But “accelerating student learning” to “compete” with other nations is not a path to economic prominence. Japan’s education system continues to be rated one of the best in the world, and is routinely held up as a model which critics of our system argue we ought to emulate. Yet Japan’s economy has remained lethargic ever since it tanked in 1990, and the country’s population — a better indicator of a society’s overall health, in my view — is in an accelerating decline.

The Japanese system, along with many others in Asia modeled after it, emphasizes high-stakes standardized testing. Test scores are used to separate students into stratified levels which dictate their future educational possibilities.

This leads to heavy stress and early burn-outs, so that, by the time they reach the university level, many Japanese students have already exhausted their best intellectual energies. A Canadian who teaches English at a Japanese university wrote in a critique of the country’s education system, “The result of all this test-taking and stress, is a nation of order takers who have trouble making decisions, let alone stating an opinion.”

Already I think the U.S. is in danger of falling into the same pattern. As Rebecca Pavese wrote here recently, some parents of 5-year-olds are so eager to score a competitive advantage for their children that they wait a year before allowing them to start school. This allows these children to accumulate more skills before they enter the now-cutthroat world of kindergarten.

At the high school level, the unprecedented number of star students, all within a few grade points of one another, has led several schools to start naming multiple valedictorians. William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, told The New York Times that he had heard of some schools with as many as 100 valedictorians. This crowding at the top forces students who are set on attending top colleges to do even more to distinguish themselves. Scores of colleges these days seem unwilling to admit anyone other than card-carrying superheroes.

Of course, excessive pressure to overachieve is not the only problem troubling the American education system. Far too many kids don’t graduate, and far too many of those who do graduate lack the skills necessary to be productive in a high-tech, service-based economy. Particularly troubling is the ongoing achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We need to fix these problems, but our need to do so is not contingent on how other countries are doing.

Education is very important. Being the international valedictorians based on PISA scores is not. To be successful, a country needs policies that encourage actual economic growth and social development, not good test taking.

A strong nation requires wise government spending, flexible labor markets, the ability to form coalitions, openness to competition, orderly politics, and the willingness to import labor through immigration or to outsource it through trade as needed. These are the things we need to focus on. If America does not continue to thrive in the world, it will be because of the things we do or fail to do, not because of the things people do elsewhere.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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One Response to "A New ‘Sputnik Moment,’ As Misleading As The First"

  • Mike Sheldrick
    December 29, 2010 - 12:21 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly. I think that learning and educational development go far beyond the memorization of specific answers to specific questions; beyond even utilizing traditional models to achieve traditional, and correct, answers. I believe true educational development leads to intellectual freedom and creativity, technical enthusiasm and foresight, and an incredible sense of self.

    “Teaching to the test” is a death wish for all of the above. It is an exercise in screening out information, rather than embracing it. It stifles creativity and proscribes the next question. It must be hell for a teacher who loves his/her subject, and it surely leaves a student interested only in the number of days left until graduation…