The New York Times reports on a study that found that young adults in the United States not only fare poorly in math and science compared with their international competitors — something we have known for years — but also now in literacy.
More surprisingly, even middle-aged Americans — who, on paper, are among the best-educated people of their generation anywhere in the world — are barely better than middle-of-the-pack in skills. Arne Duncan, the education secretary, released a statement saying that the findings “show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete — or position our country to lead — in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills.” The study is the first based on new tests developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition comprised mostly of developed nations, and administered in 2011 and 2012 to thousands of people, ages 16 to 65, by 23 countries.
The great irony of this story is that the United States spends 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product on education from pre-kindergarten through the university level — the fifth highest in the world — yet the results don’t match the spending. What is happening? Why are we spending more and more money on education and producing less competitive students? I offer the following thoughts:
(1) Sometimes these international comparisons are not too helpful. The United States is often compared to smaller and more homogeneous countries. Streamlining for particular results is much easier in these countries because of shared cultural mores both inside the classroom and within the family unit. Those outside-of-school social norms and mores also contribute to student success and performance in the long run.
(2) I agree with Andrew Coulson who said, with respect to improving America’s education system, “Systematic progress only occurs when producers have the freedoms and incentives to innovate and excel. Our public-school monopolies do not provide those freedoms and incentives, and so they stagnate while their costs inexorably rise.” As structures where innovation and creativity is not encouraged, because local school districts are held hostage to state and federal government encroachment, a culture of mediocrity develops that cares primarily about “getting by” and meeting minimal standards. Mediocrity not only affects how schools operate, but also how teachers teach students.
In schools where the goal is to meet the low expectations of state and federal education agencies, students will not be encouraged to be innovators, creators, risk takers, and analysts. American students often just want to “get by,” meeting minimal education standards without becoming inspired to excel in multiple disciplines.
Unless school districts are freed up to raise a generation of risk-taking and creative problem-solvers, American students will continue to lag behind other young adults around the world. Yet if we focus on innovation, creativity, and liberty, we’ll beget students who are innovative, creative, and free to make serious contributions to the common good.