By Ben Wildavsky , Foreign Policy, MARCH/APRIL 2011
“American Kids Are Falling Behind.”
Not really. 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.
This latest showing of American 15-year-olds certainly isn’t anything to brag about. But American students’ performance is only cause for outright panic if you buy into the assumption that scholastic achievement is a zero-sum competition between nations, an intellectual arms race in which other countries’ gain is necessarily the United States’ loss. American competitive instincts notwithstanding, there is no reason for the United States to judge itself so harshly based purely on its position in the global pecking order. So long as American schoolchildren are not moving backward in absolute terms, America’s relative place in global testing tables is less important than whether the country is improving teaching and learning enough to build the human capital it needs.
And by this measure, the U.S. education system, while certainly in need of significant progress, doesn’t look to be failing so spectacularly. The performance of American students in science and math has actually improved modestly since the last round of this international test in 2006, rising to the developed-country average in science while remaining only slightly below average in math. U.S. reading scores, in the middle of the pack for developed countries, are more or less unchanged since the most recent comparable tests in 2003. It would probably be unrealistic to expect much speedier progress. As Stuart Kerachsky, deputy commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, put it, “The needle doesn’t move very far very fast in education.”
“The United States Used to Have the World’s Smartest Schoolchildren.”
No, it didn’t. Even at the height of U.S. geopolitical dominance and economic strength, American students were never anywhere near the head of the class. In 1958, Congress responded to the Sputnik launch by passing the National Defense Education Act, which provided financial support for college students to study math, science, and foreign languages, and was accompanied by intense attention to raising standards in those subjects in American schools. But when the results from the first major international math test came out in 1967, the effort did not seem to have made much of a difference. Japan took first place out of 12 countries, while the United States finished near the bottom.
By the early 1970s, American students were ranking last among industrialized countries in seven of 19 tests of academic achievement and never made it to first or even second place in any of them. A decade later, “A Nation at Risk,” the landmark 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, cited these and other academic failings to buttress its stark claim that “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Each new cycle of panic and self-flagellation has brought with it a fresh crop of reformers touting a new solution to U.S. scholastic woes. A 1961 book by Arthur S. Trace Jr. called What Ivan Knows That Johnny Doesn’t, for instance, suggested that American students were falling behind their Soviet peers because they weren’t learning enough phonics and vocabulary. Today’s anxieties are no different, with education wonks from across the policy spectrum enlisting the U.S. education system’s sorry global ranking to make the case for their pet ideas. J. Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, argues that the latest PISA test “underscores the need for integrating reasoning and sense making in our teaching of mathematics.” Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, claims that the same results “tell us … that if you don’t make smart investments in teachers, respect them, or involve them in decision-making, as the top-performing countries do, students pay a price.”
If Americans’ ahistorical sense of their global decline prompts educators to come up with innovative new ideas, that’s all to the good. But don’t expect any of them to bring the country back to its educational golden age — there wasn’t one.
“Chinese Students Are Eating America’s Lunch.”
Only partly true. The biggest headline from the recent PISA results concerned the first-place performance of students from Shanghai, and the inevitable “the Chinese are eating our lunch” meme was hard for American commentators and policymakers to resist. “While Shanghai’s appearance at the top might have been a stunner, America’s mediocre showing was no surprise,” declared a USA Today editorial.
China’s educational prowess is real. Tiger moms are no myth — Chinese students focus intensely on their schoolwork, with strong family support — but these particular results don’t necessarily provide compelling evidence of U.S. inferiority. Shanghai is a special case and hardly representative of China as a whole; it’s a talent magnet that draws from all over China and benefits from extensive government investment in education. Scores for the United States and other countries, by contrast, reflect the performance of a geographic cross-section of teenagers. China — a vast country whose hinterlands are poorer and less-educated than its coastal cities — would likely see its numbers drop if it attempted a similar assessment.
What about perennial front-runners like Finland and South Korea, whose students were again top scorers? These countries undoubtedly deserve credit for high educational accomplishment. In some areas — the importance of carefully selected, high-quality teachers, for example — they might well provide useful lessons for the United States. But they have nothing like the steady influx of immigrants, mostly Latinos, whose children attend American public schools. And unfortunately, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics of the United States — none of which have analogues in Finland or South Korea — correlate closely with yawning achievement gaps in education. Non-Hispanic white and Asian pupils in the United States do about as well on these international tests as students from high-scoring countries like Canada and Japan, while Latino and black teens — collectively more than a third of the American students tested — score only about as well as those from Turkey and Bulgaria, respectively.
To explain is not to excuse, of course. The United States has an obligation to give all its citizens a high-quality education; tackling the U.S. achievement gap should be a moral imperative. But alarmist comparisons with other countries whose challenges are quite different from those of the United States don’t help. Americans should be less worried about how their own kids compare with kids in Helsinki than how students in the Bronx measure up to their peers in Westchester County.
“The U.S. No Longer Attracts the Best and Brightest.”
Wrong. While Americans have worried about their elementary and high school performance for decades, they could reliably comfort themselves with the knowledge that at least their college education system was second to none. But today, American university leaders fret that other countries are catching up in, among other things, the market for international students, for whom the United States has long been the world’s largest magnet. The numbers seem to bear this out. According to the most recent statistics, the U.S. share of foreign students fell from 24 percent in 2000 to just below 19 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, countries like Australia, Canada, and Japan saw increased market shares from their 2000 levels, though they are still far below the American numbers.
The international distribution of mobile students is clearly changing, reflecting an ever more competitive global higher-education market. But there are many more foreign students in the United States than there were a decade ago — 149,000 more in 2008 than in 2000, a 31 percent increase. What has happened is that there are simply many more of them overall studying outside their home countries. Some 800,000 students ventured abroad in 1975; that number reached 2 million in 2000 and ballooned to 3.3 million in 2008. In other words, the United States has a smaller piece of the pie, but the pie has gotten much, much larger.
And even with its declining share, the United States still commands 9 percentage points more of the market than its nearest competitor, Britain. For international graduate study, American universities are a particularly powerful draw in fields that may directly affect the future competitiveness of a country’s economy: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In disciplines such as computer science and engineering, more than six in 10 doctoral students in American programs come from foreign countries.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. Although applications from international students to American graduate schools have recovered from their steep post-9/11 decline, the number of foreigners earning science and engineering doctorates at U.S. universities recently dropped for the first time in five years. American schools face mounting competition from universities in other countries, and the United States’ less-than-welcoming visa policies may give students from overseas more incentive to go elsewhere. That’s a loss for the United States, given the benefits to both its universities and its economy of attracting the best and brightest from around the world.
“American Universities Are Being Overtaken.”
Not so fast. There’s no question that the growing research aspirations of emerging countries have eroded the long-standing dominance of North America, the European Union, and Japan. Asia’s share of the world’s research and development spending grew from 27 to 32 percent from 2002 to 2007, led mostly by China, India, and South Korea, according to a 2010 UNESCO report. The traditional research leaders saw decreases during the same period. From 2002 to 2008, the U.S. proportion of articles in the Thomson Reuters Science Citation Index, the authoritative database of research publications, fell further than any other country’s, from 30.9 to 27.7 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese publications recorded in the same index more than doubled, as did the volume of scientific papers from Brazil, a country whose research institutions wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar 20 years ago.
This shift in the geography of knowledge production is certainly noteworthy, but as with the international study market, the United States simply represents a proportionally smaller piece of a greatly expanded pie. R&D spending worldwide massively surged in the last decade, from $790 billion to $1.1 trillion, up 45 percent. And the declining U.S. share of global research spending still represented a healthy increase in constant dollars, from $277 billion in 2002 to $373 billion in 2007. U.S. research spending as a percentage of GDP over the same period was consistent and very high by global standards. The country’s R&D investments still totaled more than all Asian countries’ combined.
Similarly, a declining U.S. share of the world’s scientific publications may sound bad from an American point of view. But the total number of publications listed in the Thomson Reuters index surged by more than a third from 2002 to 2008. Even with a shrinking global lead, U.S. researchers published 46,000 more scientific articles in 2008 than they did six years earlier. And in any case, research discoveries don’t remain within the borders of the countries where they occur — knowledge is a public good, with little regard for national boundaries. Discoveries in one country’s research institutions can be capitalized on by innovators elsewhere. Countries shouldn’t be indifferent to the rise in their share of the research — big breakthroughs can have positive economic and academic spillover effects — but they also shouldn’t fear the increase of cutting-edge discoveries elsewhere.
“The World Will Catch Up.”
Maybe, but don’t count on it anytime soon. And don’t count on it mattering. The global academic marketplace is without doubt growing more competitive than ever. Countries from China and South Korea to Saudi Arabia have made an urgent priority of creating world-class universities or restoring the lost luster of once great institutions. And they’re putting serious money into it: China is spending billions on expanding enrollment and improving its elite research institutions, while Saudi King Abdullah has funneled $10 billion into the brand-new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.
But the United States doesn’t have just a few elite schools, like most of its ostensible competitors; it has a deep bench of outstanding institutions. A 2008 Rand Corp. report found that nearly two-thirds of the most highly cited articles in science and technology come from the United States, and seven in 10 Nobel Prize winners are employed by American universities. And the United States spends about 2.9 percent of its GDP on postsecondary education, about twice the percentage spent by China, the European Union, and Japan in 2006.
But while the old U.S.-centric order of elite institutions is unlikely to be wholly overturned, it will gradually be shaken up in the coming decades. Asian countries in particular are making significant progress and may well produce some great universities within the next half-century, if not sooner. In China, for instance, institutions such as Tsinghua and Peking universities in Beijing and Fudan and Shanghai Jiao Tong universities in Shanghai could achieve real prominence on the world stage.
But over the long term, exactly where countries sit in the university hierarchy will be less and less relevant, as Americans’ understanding of who is “us” and who is “them” gradually changes. Already, a historically unprecedented level of student and faculty mobility has become a defining characteristic of global higher education. Cross-border scientific collaboration, as measured by the volume of publications by co-authors from different countries, has more than doubled in two decades. Countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia are jump-starting a culture of academic excellence at their universities by forging partnerships with elite Western institutions such as Duke, MIT, Stanford, and Yale.
The notion of just how much a university really has to be connected to a particular location is being rethought, too. Western universities, from Texas A&M to the Sorbonne, have garnered much attention by creating, admittedly with mixed results, some 160 branch campuses in Asia and the Middle East, many launched in the last decade. New York University recently went one step further by opening a full-fledged liberal arts campus in Abu Dhabi, part of what NYU President John Sexton envisions as a “global network university.” One day, as University of Warwick Vice Chancellor Nigel Thrift suggests, we may see outright mergers between institutions — and perhaps ultimately the university equivalent of multinational corporations.
In this coming era of globalized education, there is little place for the Sputnik alarms of the Cold War, the Shanghai panic of today, and the inevitable sequels lurking on the horizon. The international education race worth winning is the one to develop the intellectual capacity the United States and everyone else needs to meet the formidable challenges of the 21st century — and who gets there first won’t matter as much as we once feared.